- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 28, 2006

More than six weeks after Americans turned Congress over to Democrats, President Bush yesterday said he still does not have a plan for securing Iraq, although he said he is “making good progress toward coming up” with one.

After meeting yesterday with top White House officials and military advisers at his Crawford, Texas, ranch during a vacation, the president said he is continuing to compile information and build a plan to deal with rampant sectarian violence that has left 100 American troops dead this month.

“I’m making good progress toward coming up with a plan that we think will help us achieve our objective,” said Mr. Bush, flanked by Vice President Dick Cheney; Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates.

“I’ve got more consultation to do until I talk to the country about the plan,” he added. “The key to success in Iraq is to have a government that’s willing to deal with the elements there that are trying to prevent this young democracy from succeeding.”

The president’s approval rating has plummeted, and Americans delivered both chambers of Congress last month to the Democrats in an election widely viewed as a rebuke of the administration’s Iraq policy.

Mr. Bush has a small window in which to change course in Iraq on his own terms: Congress returns early next month, and the president plans to deliver his State of the Union address on Jan. 23. Although the White House promised quick action after the bipartisan Iraq Study Group early this month called for the withdrawal of most combat troops by early 2008, the president changed his mind and pushed the plan off until next year.

“Not only will I continue to reach out to Congress, but members of my team will do so, as well. I fully understand it’s important to have both Republicans and Democrats understanding the importance of this mission,” the president said.

The president is considering what military advisers call the “surge” option: increasing the number of troops in Iraq and embedding more U.S. analysts in Iraqi units to quell violence in order to provide an opportunity for political reconciliation and rebuilding.

The Pentagon said Wednesday that it will send about 3,500 troops to Kuwait to serve as a standby force for use in Iraq or elsewhere in the region. The deployment order was sent to a brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C.

In addition, the president announced earlier this month that he supports expanding the Army and the Marine Corps, a move some military analysts took as a hint that he plans to send more troops into Iraq.

Meanwhile in Iraq, a bomb killed an American soldier and wounded another yesterday while they were on patrol north of Baghdad. Three soldiers also died from roadside bombs in the capital, and a Marine was killed in western Anbar province on Wednesday, the military said. With 100 American troops dead so far this month, December is the second-deadliest month of 2006 for U.S. military personnel. At least 105 troops died in October.

A senior administration official said yesterday’s meeting lasted nearly three hours and was followed by a lunch. Another National Security Council session is likely before Mr. Bush announces his plan in the first few weeks of January, the official said.

The official said that Mr. Gates and Gen. Pace, who just returned from Iraq, elaborated on the briefing they gave the president at Camp David before Christmas and talked more about what they saw and heard on the ground.

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