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Bush Open to Shift in Iraq War `Tactics'

Still, he sees no major changes in strategy and insists that `we will win.' Some White House officials expect a new course within months.

October 21, 2006|Paul Richter and Doyle McManus | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — With U.S. casualties rising and pressure growing from Republican and Democratic leaders for a change of course in Iraq, President Bush said Friday that he was willing to adjust U.S. "tactics" in Baghdad but did not intend to change his strategy or long-term goals.

"We will stay in Iraq, we will fight in Iraq and we will win in Iraq," Bush told Republican contributors in Washington. "Our goal hasn't changed, but the tactics are constantly adjusting to an enemy which is brutal and violent."

But pressure is mounting among some administration officials and party faithful for a major change in the way Bush is handling the war.

His remarks appeared to signal that he was open to at least a limited change in his approach, and that he was not wedded to a "stay-the-course" doctrine, as critics say. At the same time, Bush pledged to secure victory and said he would not change his administration's strategy or overall goals, even if it shifted tactics.

He spoke at the end of a grim week that saw an American commander acknowledge that U.S. policies aimed at quelling violence in Baghdad had fallen short and on the eve of a White House conference with generals, Cabinet officials and national security advisors.

The developments came as an increasing number of Republicans questioned the wisdom of Bush's policies in Iraq and called for new military and political options, and as expectations grew for a postelection change in direction. By adhering to longer-term goals while allowing for tactical changes, Bush could argue that military shifts did not represent a failure of policies.

In his comments, Bush said his administration's "unchanging" goal was to enable Iraq to govern, defend and sustain itself.

But some administration officials said Friday that in the face of Iraq's deepening troubles, they were weighing major changes in direction and expected a new course -- though not a withdrawal -- to be announced within months.

One senior official said he expected the change to come once a congressionally chartered panel, the Iraq Study Group, makes its recommendations, giving the administration "political cover."

"We're not going to pack up and go home," said the official, who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to speak on the subject. "But the situation is grim, and may even be worse than it looks in the media" because of frequent near-calamities in Iraq that never come to the public's attention.

"People here are desperate, and there is a lot of deep thinking going on," the senior official said.

Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, an independent foreign policy organization, said opinion on the war appeared to be near "a tipping point."

"I think we are reaching the point, and it's going to happen soon, where simply 'more of essentially the same' is going to be a policy that very few people are going to be able to support," said Haass, who was an aide to former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.

Several strategic alternatives in Iraq are receiving the most attention, observers said.

They include setting a timetable for withdrawal; giving a larger role to other countries in the region, notably Syria and Iran, to win their cooperation on security; decentralizing the government of Iraq, or even formally dividing the country into Kurdish, Sunni Arab and Shiite states; and encouraging the formation of a new government led by a strong leader, such as an Iraqi army general.

Administration officials and outside experts said all of the options had major disadvantages and would have substantial political costs. U.S. officials said each of the alternatives had been rejected at various points by the administration.

But the senior U.S. official said some in the government continued to think about options that had been ruled out -- including a more authoritarian approach -- in hopes of establishing order as a first step toward rebuilding the country.

The official described it as a "last choice," but said, "at some point, the situation becomes so serious that you need order, period."

Handing the government over to a strong leader would carry large political costs. It would mean setting aside the administration's goal of establishing an American-style government, at least temporarily. And it would mean finding what some officials call a "man on horseback" who would have support from all the major Iraqi factions -- perhaps an impossible task.

The strongman option was called the "most plausible" by scholar Eliot Cohen of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, who has close ties to the military and administration. Cohen, often described as a leading neoconservative, has been praised by Bush.

Cohen wrote in a Wall Street Journal column published Friday that the Iraq war was, "if not a failure, failing." He said throwing U.S. support behind a strong leader would force the administration to swallow "a substantial repast of crow."

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