- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The White House said yesterday that President Bush will not lay out his plan to chart a new course in Iraq until early next year, as new polls showed Americans are more pessimistic than ever about the nation’s ability to win the nearly four-year war.

The president held a second day of talks with top officials, this time U.S. military commanders on the ground and the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, and plans another round today, meeting with Pentagon brass. In the days after the Iraq Study Group report was released last week, the White House said it planned to release a new comprehensive plan before Christmas.

“That is not going to happen until the new year,” press secretary Tony Snow said. “He decided that, frankly, it’s not ready yet.”

The expectation to complete a plan before the holidays is complicated by incoming Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who will not be sworn in to take Donald H. Rumsfeld’s place until Monday. Mr. Gates has said he plans to travel to Baghdad for a crash course about the situation on the ground in Iraq before making his own recommendations to the president.

“His input is not only going to be valuable, but necessary,” Mr. Snow said.

More, though, the completion of a new plan means taking input from dozens of advisers on the diplomatic, political and military strategy. “It’s a complicated business, and there are a lot of things to take into account,” Mr. Snow said.

The president is trying to consolidate conflicting advice on how to change course in Iraq, where sectarian violence has spiraled out of control. The bipartisan Iraq Study Group last week recommended pulling out most U.S. combat troops by early 2008, but Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, has called for a short-term increase in U.S. troops.

Top military officials with whom Mr. Bush met yesterday backed Mr. McCain’s stance, but Democrats on Capitol Hill, who won control of both chambers six weeks ago, are calling for a swift exit from Iraq. Incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid yesterday criticized the White House decision to delay the president’s plan.

“It has been six weeks since the American people demanded change in Iraq. In that time, Iraq has descended further toward all-out civil war and all the president has done is fire Donald Rumsfeld and conduct a listening tour. Waiting and delaying on Iraq serves no one’s interests,” he said. “Talking to the same people he should have talked to four years ago does not relieve the president of the need to demonstrate leadership and change his policy now. The ball remains in his court, and time is running out.”

But Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said at the State Department that “it only makes sense for the president to take whatever time he needs to have confidence in the course that he will put forward before the American people.”

Three new public opinion polls taken after the release of the Iraq Study Group’s report painted a grim picture for the president. One, a CBS News poll found Americans have never been as pessimistic about the war, with more than 60 percent saying it was a mistake to invade the country.

But the White House saw a different picture. “If you take a look at poll data, and there’s a lot of discussion about that, what’s interesting is that a majority of the American public not only thinks that we’re capable of winning, but we should,” Mr. Snow said.

Other polls were equally grim. More than half of the respondents, 55 percent, in a USA Today-Gallup poll said they want most U.S. troops withdrawn within a year, but only 18 percent think that will happen.

An ABC News poll found seven in 10 Americans disapproved of Mr. Bush’s handling of Iraq and 61 percent said the war there was not worth fighting. In the survey, three out of four said they supported the three major recommendations made by the Iraq Study Group: direct talks with Iran and Syria, withdrawing most U.S. combat troops by March 2008, and beginning a new push to resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

But the president has rejected direct talks with terrorism sponsors Iran and Syria, although last week he called an idea to use a regional group of Iraq’s neighbors to address solutions “interesting.”

Mr. Bush conferred yesterday via videoconference with senior military commanders in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, Mr. Rumsfeld and Mr. Gates. Later, the president met in the Oval Office with Iraq’s vice president, Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni, in an effort to bolster the fledgling government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

“Our objective is to help the Iraqi government deal with the extremists and killers and support the vast majority of Iraqis who are reasonable people who want peace,” Mr. Bush said after the meeting. “We want to help your government be effective.”

Mr. al-Hashemi said before his visit that he intended to express to Mr. Bush his “dismay” over the Shi’ite-led Iraqi government’s handling of security. He accused the government of not doing enough to deal with militia attacks and said he was especially concerned about Baghdad, where Sunni-Shi’ite violence has flared in several neighborhoods in recent weeks.

Meanwhile in Baghdad, two car bombs targeting day laborers looking for work exploded within seconds of each other yesterday on a main square, killing at least 63 persons and wounding scores more. Mr. al-Maliki, a member of Iraq’s Shi’ite majority, condemned the attack and blamed it on Sunni extremists and supporters of Saddam Hussein.

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