Thursday, October 19, 2006

The White House yesterday rejected partitioning Iraq into three sections based on ethnicity and religion and took issue with reports that President Bush now views the 3-1/2-year-old Iraq war as similar to the war in Vietnam.

With leaks from the Iraq Study Group (ISG), headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, swirling around Washington, press secretary Tony Snow moved to distance Mr. Bush from a few alternative proposals.

“We’ve thought about partition, for a series of reasons,” but Mr. Bush has categorically rejected the idea of breaking Iraq into regions, Mr. Snow said in reply to questions about an article in The Washington Times.

Under such a plan, the nation 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.

Still, the spokesman left some wiggle room.

“Ideas like partition had been studied. What you’re talking now about are tactical adjustments that may be made along the way. And I’m not saying yes and I’m not saying no because I don’t know. What you end up doing, again, is you respond to the people on the ground,” he said.

While the ISG’s report on recommendations is not expected until after the Nov. 7 elections, leaks show that several proposals have been discussed, including partitioning and a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops.

But Mr. Snow yesterday dismissed an article in The Washington Times about a coming “course correction” on war strategy in Iraq.

“That’s a bunch of hooey. I mean, it seems to be a collection of actually old hooey brought into a piece of new hooey. So, I mean, you get — I don’t know where that came from, but it didn’t come from the White House,” he said.

The article in fact quoted several administration members and supporters describing the present situation in Iraq as unsatisfactory and then identified some alternative approaches, listing their pros and cons.

Among them was the idea of partitioning Iraq, which the spokesman described as a “non-starter.”

Another proposal that has been floated in advance of the ISG’s report is a phased withdrawal, pulling 5 percent of U.S. troops out every two months. Mr. Snow also rejected that notion.

“You don’t — you withdraw when you win. Phased withdrawal is a way of saying, regardless of what the conditions are on the ground, we’re going to get out of Dodge,” he said.

The White House also took issue with reports that Mr. Bush now views Iraq as another Vietnam, saying his answer during an ABC News interview was narrowly tailored and referred only to propaganda efforts by insurgents.

The president was asked by George Stephanopoulos on Wednesday if he agreed with an opinion piece by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman that the violence in Iraq is “the jihadist equivalent of the Tet offensive.”

“He could be right,” Mr. Bush said. “There’s certainly a stepped-up level of violence, and we’re heading into an election.”

But after news outlets reported that the president had compared Iraq to Vietnam, the White House sought to set the record straight.

“The president was making a point that he’s made before, which is that terrorists try to exploit pictures and try to use the media as conduits for influencing public opinion in the United States,” Mr. Snow said.

“It is possible, although we don’t have a clear pathway into the minds of terrorists, it is possible that they are trying to use violence right now as a way of influencing the elections.”

The Tet Offensive, which began Jan. 30, 1968, is widely considered the turning point of the Vietnam War. Although U.S. and South Vietnamese forces repulsed the Northern troops with huge losses, the breadth and power of the offensive caused deep doubts in the American public about the prospects for eventual victory.

Support for the war quickly deteriorated, and President Johnson, who saw his popularity plummet, withdrew as a candidate for re-election in March of 1968.

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