Bush meets panel on Iraq

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- As pressure mounted for direct talks with Iran and Syria on the crisis in Iraq, President Bush held a much-anticipated session yesterday with members of a blue-ribbon panel that is expected to propose major changes in U.S. policy toward Iraq.

In public comments afterward, Bush seemed cool to the idea of engaging hostile regimes in Iran and Syria as part of a new approach to dealing with the violence in Iraq. The president also said that those who favor a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops should "recognize that the best military options depend upon the conditions on the ground."


Robert M. Gates, a member of the Iraq Study Group until Bush selected him last week to replace Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, has advocated direct talks with Iran to help stabilize Iraq. He was a co-author of a 2004 report that called involving the Tehran government "the most effective means of thwarting any attempts by hard-line elements in Iran to undermine Iraq."

Also yesterday, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Bush's closest ally, called for outreach to Iran and Syria during a major address in London in which he called for a "whole Middle East" approach to stabilizing Iraq.


Bush reiterated his position that the United States would not deal with Tehran unless the regime halts the enrichment of uranium -- a practice the administration sees as a precursor to a nuclear-armed Iran -- and that Syria must cease meddling in Lebanon and stop supporting terrorist groups.

In brief remarks to reporters, Bush did not endorse any new Iraq policies, saying that he would await suggestions from the group chaired by Republican former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Democratic Rep. Lee H. Hamilton. Its report is expected to be made public next month.

"I was impressed by the questions they asked. They want us to succeed in Iraq, just like I want to succeed," Bush said. "I'm not sure what the report is going to say."

Bush has tempered his tone and adopted a more inclusive stance on Iraq. Once accused of shutting out those with different views, he now openly and enthusiastically solicits input.

Quoted in Bob Woodward's recent book State of Denial as vowing to stick with his policy even if only his wife and dog backed him, Bush is working to hand some responsibility for the war to newly ascendant Democrats, who rode to power in last week's elections, at least in part, on a wave of public anger over the situation in Iraq.

Democrats are "beginning to understand that with victory comes responsibilities," Bush said in a brief question-and-answer session with reporters after a separate meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

It is not clear whether the president's new tone will bring a sweeping policy shift.

James F. Dobbins, an international security specialist at the Rand Corp. who held foreign policy posts in the current administration as well as under President Bill Clinton, said Bush should mount "a vigorous and comprehensive diplomatic campaign designed to draw neighboring states into a collaborative effort to hold Iraq together."


"Left to their own devices, they'll do this in a way that tears the country apart," said Dobbins. He noted that Iran and Syria support different factions in Iraq.

"The only way you can keep a state that's in the advanced state of disintegration we see in Iraq together is to get neighbors working in a convergent way, not a divergent way," said Dobbins, who has advised the Baker-Hamilton group.

The White House tried to lower expectations that Bush will seize on the group's recommendations to reverse course in Iraq.

Bush does not want to "outsource" the Iraq problem, said White House spokesman Tony Snow. "It's not how it works."

The president "understands that it is his job to be commander in chief and to make the best decisions he can on the basis of the best information and ideas available," Snow added.

The White House spokesman sidestepped a question about whether Bush would be willing to reach out to Iran and Syria, saying only that Bush "will not make judgments because the Baker group says something. He'll do things because he thinks that they are in the nation's best strategic and global interests."


Meanwhile, Democrats, who will become the majority in Congress in January, said they would join with like-minded Republicans to demand a phased troop withdrawal within four to six months in an attempt to force Iraq's government to bring the country under control.

"We await the report of the Baker-Hamilton commission. That is going to have an impact on whatever action might be possible in this Congress and in the next Congress," said Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, who is expected to become chairman of the Armed Services Committee.

Levin seemed doubtful that the Bush administration would accept Democratic policy prescriptions. "We see a difference in tone," he said. "I can't tell you that I'm optimistic that the president is suddenly going to adopt this approach."

After meeting yesterday with Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley, the Iraq study panel huddled with Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte, CIA Director Michael V. Hayden, top military officers and Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq. Panel members are to meet today with Democrats, including former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, former Clinton adviser Samuel R. Berger and Richard C. Holbrooke, a former top State Department official.

Despite the bipartisan talk, it is clear that deep divisions on Iraq remain.

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, among his party's most scathing critics of Bush's Iraq policy, said he would "adamantly oppose" any attempt to set a deadline for withdrawing U.S. troops -- a proposal he said "should hit a wall in the Senate."


The prospect of a fight in Congress over Iraq policy intensifies the challenge facing Bush, who might have to reorder his administration's priorities in order to find a way out of the war, analysts said.

To get help from Iran and Syria, Bush would have to play down his push to spread democracy throughout the Middle East -- a central goal of his second term -- and focus instead on ensuring Iraq's sovereignty, territorial integrity and stability, Dobbins said.

Bush's image of a "radically democratized Iraq that would cause a major change in neighbors" is alienating Iran and Syria and would discourage them from helping to stabilize Iraq, Dobbins added.