- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 22, 2006

President Bush yesterday acknowledged that U.S. commanders are changing tactics in Iraq nearly every day but declared that the mission “is clear and unchanging.”

“Our goal,” he said, “is victory.”

The president’s remarks aired in his weekly radio address as he met to discuss the situation in Iraq with top generals and other advisers at the White House.

Later, a senior State Department official said in an interview with an Arab television network that the United States had shown “arrogance” and “stupidity” in Iraq.

Alberto Fernandez, director of public diplomacy in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs at the State Department, told Al Jazeera that Washington was ready to talk with any group except al Qaeda in Iraq to bring about national reconciliation.

“We are open to dialogue, because we all know that, at the end of the day, the solution to the hell and the killings in Iraq is linked to an effective Iraqi national reconciliation,” Mr. Fernandez said, speaking in Arabic from Washington.

But Mr. Bush indicated little intention to make major changes, although the number of U.S. troops killed in Iraq so far this month climbed to 78 — the highest monthly tally this year — and despite reports that the White House is nearing a dramatic shift in war strategy.

“What is changing are the tactics we use to achieve that goal,” the president said in his radio address. “Our commanders on the ground are constantly adjusting their approach to stay ahead of the enemy, particularly in Baghdad.”

Mr. Bush vehemently rejected pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq.

“There is one thing we will not do: We will not pull our troops off the battlefield before the mission is complete,” he said. “There are some in Washington who argue that retreating from Iraq would make us safer. I disagree.”

Mr. Fernandez, in the Al Jazeera interview, said there was room for criticism of the war “because, undoubtedly, there was arrogance and there was stupidity from the United States in Iraq.”

Political pressure is growing for the president to make a decisive change to his war strategy, and Democratic candidates nationwide have campaigned on a theme of change.

Democratic congressional candidate Diane Farrell, of Connecticut, yesterday said Mr. Bush should fire Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. She said Congress should set clear benchmarks for Iraqis that, when met, would allow U.S. troops to leave the country.

“We need a new direction in Iraq,” said Mrs. Farrell, who delivered her party’s weekly radio address. “To be blunt, the president and the Republican Congress have been wrong on Iraq and wrong to keep their failed strategy.”

Meanwhile in Iraq, a dozen mortar rounds rained down yesterday on an outdoor market in Mahmoudiyah crowded with shoppers, killing at least 18.

Earlier, gunfights broke out in Hamza al Gharbi, about 60 miles south of Baghdad, after a bomb exploded near the offices of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a leading Shi’ite political party. At least two persons were killed and four injured.

As the violence continued in Iraq — including the deaths yesterday of three U.S. Marines — the president met with top commanders and national security advisers.

The 90-minute meeting brought together Mr. Rumsfeld; Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Peter Pace; Gen. John Abizaid, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East; National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley and others. Participating by videoconference were Vice President Dick Cheney; Gen. George Casey, who heads the U.S.-led forces in Iraq; and Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. ambassador to Iraq.

Polls nationwide indicate Republicans are in jeopardy in the Nov. 7 elections of losing their majority in Congress, which they have held since 1994. Democrats need to net 15 seats to win control of the House, and six seats to take the Senate.

With leaks from the independent Iraq Study Group (ISG), headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, swirling around Washington, the White House has rejected a few trial balloons floated in recent weeks. Those include partitioning Iraq into three sections based on ethnicity and religion and withdrawing 5 percent of U.S. troops every two months.

Under a partition plan, Iraq would be divided into Sunni, Shi’ite and Kurdish regions, each enjoying near-autonomy, with a central government handling defense, foreign policy and oil production.

Mr. Bush sounded more open to alternative tactics. He said the Iraqi prime minister recently met with tribal leaders from Anbar province, “who told him they are ready to stand up and fight the terrorists.”

Fellow Republicans are beginning to criticize Mr. Bush’s policy.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John W. Warner of Virginia said after a recent visit to Iraq that U.S. efforts are “drifting sideways.” Other Senate leaders, including Sens. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, Susan Collins and Olympia J. Snowe of Maine and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, have been critical of Mr. Bush’s “stay the course” policy.

Almost two-thirds of respondents in a Newsweek poll released yesterday said the United States is losing ground in efforts to establish security and democracy in Iraq.

White House spokesman Tony Snow said Friday that while Mr. Bush might change tactics, he would not change his overall strategy.

“He’s not somebody who gets jumpy at polls,” Mr. Snow said.

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