Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The White House yesterday rejected Democrats’ proposals for a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq as lacking specifics or “meat on the bones,” as President Bush met with the Iraq Study Group, which is seeking to advise the administration on ways to realign Iraq policy.

Democrats have claimed a mandate after last week’s elections to force a change in Iraq policy, and key Senate Democrats yesterday called for the first troops to be withdrawn within six months as a signal to Iraqis that the United States is not their “security blanket.”

“That’s the message that came through so clearly and powerfully last Tuesday from the American people. Most Democrats share the view that we should pressure the White House to commence the phased redeployment of U.S. troops from Iraq in four to six months,” said Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, who is in line to become the next chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

His call was echoed by Sen. Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, who is likely to become the Senate majority leader when Democrats assume control next year. Meanwhile, House Democrats’ leader, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, has made Iraq the central issue in the race for House Democrats’ No. 2 position by endorsing Rep. John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania, based on his opposition to the war.

Faced with the election results and emboldened Democrats, Mr. Bush is trying to keep control of the debate while still being open to suggestions from the soon-to-be new majority party on Capitol Hill.

“What’s interesting is, is that they’re beginning to understand that with victory comes responsibilities. And I’m looking forward to working with the Democrats to achieve common objectives,” the president told reporters after a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

White House press secretary Tony Snow said that Democrats have not settled on a proposal and that Mr. Levin’s idea isn’t even fleshed out enough to respond.

“Democrats now have to put meat on the bones,” he said.

The White House has turned to the Iraq Study Group, boosting the congressionally mandated panel’s profile in the past week both in a postelection press conference and again with a day full of meetings between the group’s members and administration officials.

Mr. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley and White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten met yesterday with the group, headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Democratic Rep. Lee H. Hamilton of Indiana for 75 minutes yesterday.

The group spent the day at the White House, also meeting with the secretaries of defense and state, the national intelligence and CIA directors, top generals and the U.S. ambassador to Iraq. Today, its members will meet with Democrats such as former National Security Adviser Samuel R. Berger, former Assistant Secretary of State Richard C. Holbrooke and former Secretary of State Warren Christopher.

Expectations for the group are growing, and those on both sides of the political divide say it could be a chance for the White House to achieve a face-saving way forward in Iraq.

The group said it wants to have a report by the end of the year.

But Mr. Snow said the study group is just one of the voices Mr. Bush will listen to, and said Mr. Bush is responsible for making final decisions. He also cautioned against putting too much weight on the group’s meetings yesterday with administration officials, saying that it was an exchange of information about what is going on in Iraq and that the group was not pitching suggestions.

“There seems to be this notion that somehow this is like a board game, where you just sort of neatly sweep all the pieces off, and then it’s all done,” he said.

Still, Mr. Bush’s tone has already changed to the point where he is now drawing fewer lines and sounding more welcoming to outside ideas.

Asked yesterday whether he would accept recommendations from the group that included timetables, Mr. Bush did not rule it out, instead saying he will not “prejudge” the report. At a press conference last week, he announced the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and nominated Robert M. Gates, who until Friday was a member of the study group, as a replacement.

Mr. Levin said the change in attitude was apparent.

“I didn’t hear anything about cutting and running,” he said. “I didn’t hear anything about if you are proposing that we begin a phased redeployment in four to six months, that somehow or other that will help the terrorists.”

• Charles Hurt contributed to this article.

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