- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 24, 2006

President Bush, drafting an overhaul of his Iraq war plan, heard yesterday from the Pentagon chief who had just returned from Iraq with a positive impression of Iraqi leaders’ plans to address sectarian violence.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates finished his first week on the job by delivering a report to Mr. Bush on the three days he spent talking with Iraqi leaders, U.S. commanders and American soldiers.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Peter Pace, who traveled with Mr. Gates to Iraq, helped make the presentation.

The early-morning meeting at Camp David in Maryland’s mountains lasted about an hour. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley and Mr. Hadley’s deputy, J.D. Crouch, who is coordinating the administration’s Iraq review, also participated.

White House officials declined to disclose any details of the conversations. Mr. Bush is meeting with his national security team again Thursday at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.

“The president is pleased with the progress being made” to design a new policy, said Blain Rethmeier, a Bush spokesman. “The president is leaving all options on the table on the way forward.”

With public support for the war falling as violence and U.S. deaths rise, Mr. Bush has been eager to show he is ready to make changes, though significant troop reductions sought by some Democrats have been ruled out.

Mr. Bush is expected to announce a revamped Iraq strategy in a speech to the nation between New Year’s Day and his Jan. 23 State of the Union address.

“If you’re serving on the front lines halfway across the world, it is natural to wonder what all this means for you,” Mr. Bush said yesterday in his weekly radio address. “I want our troops to know that while the coming year will bring change, one thing will not change, and that is our nation’s support for you and the vital work you do to achieve a victory in Iraq.”

There are several signs that a proposal to add thousands of U.S. troops to the 140,000 already in Iraq — as a way to control escalating violence, particularly in Baghdad — is gaining favor at the White House.

The Los Angeles Times reported Saturday that Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and other military leaders in Iraq, who had been the primary voices skeptical of a “surge” in troops, have decided to endorse the idea.

Lt. Col. Christopher C. Garver, spokesman for Gen. Casey, said yesterday, “As of this time, General Casey has not recommended more troops be sent here.”

Mr. Rethmeier, the Bush spokesman, would neither confirm nor deny the Times story.

Mr. Gates did not tip his hand about his views on a troop surge.

Some important players at the Pentagon remain unconvinced that a significant troop increase would help and, in fact, worry it could do more harm than good by giving Iraqis incentive not to make their own inroads. Democrats and other critics also fear American troops will remain mired unless the Iraqis are forced by the prospect of an imminent withdrawal of U.S. troops to make progress.

While in Baghdad, Mr. Gates did praise Iraqi leaders for having “some concrete plans in mind” to deal with the deadly militias that have brought the country to the brink of civil war between the Shi’ite majority and Sunni minority.

He left Gen. Casey with the assignment of putting “flesh on those bones” in consultations over the next few days with the Iraqi government, which has had little success so far reining in the militias or quelling the bloodshed.

Mr. Bush has said all along that U.S. troops cannot come home until Iraqis are able to secure and defend their own country without significant American assistance.

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