Bush warns against pullout

But he says he's open to `new ideas' after meeting with the Iraq Study Group.

By Paul Richter

Los Angeles Times

November 14, 2006

WASHINGTON — President Bush cautioned Monday against holding talks with Syria and Iran and beginning a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, two key proposals gaining support at home and abroad.

But the president said he was open to "new ideas" on his administration's approach to Iraq after meeting with members of the Iraq Study Group, a panel weighing U.S. options there.

Bush's warnings against talks with Syria and Iran came as British Prime Minister Tony Blair called for a Middle East strategy that could involve a "new partnership" with Iran. The Iraq Study Group is also considering whether greater U.S. involvement with Iraq's neighbors could aid the American effort.

Bush discussed Iran at a White House meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and told reporters afterward that any dealings were contingent on Tehran halting its uranium enrichment program.

"If the Iranians want to have a dialogue with us, we have shown them a way forward, and that is for them to verifiably suspend their enrichment activities," Bush said.

He cautioned against proposals for gradual or phased troop reductions in Iraq, which are gaining steam among Democrats, saying that no military option would work unless it recognized "conditions on the ground."

The developments came as the administration strained to chart a new direction for Iraq in response to a growing antiwar sentiment. Last week's midterm election, which analysts said showed a deep dissatisfaction with White House policies on the war, has increased the pressure.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice delayed a long-planned trip to Vietnam so she could meet at the White House with the Iraq Study Group. She also held planning sessions on the war with top-level State Department officials.

In Iraq, Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, paid an unannounced visit to Prime Minister Nouri Maliki to press him on setting a timetable to take control of the nation's security.

Maliki, in turn, asked for greater authority to deploy Iraqi troops as he saw fit, said an Iraqi official who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions.

Abizaid and other top military commanders were among those being summoned to meet with members of Congress this week to answer questions on conditions in Iraq, where civil strife in Baghdad has continued despite a U.S.-led crackdown.

The Iraq Study Group, led by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), spent the day at the White House to begin a final round of interviews and meetings aimed at forging a new approach to Iraq.

The stakes are enormous. Administration and congressional officials are hoping the 10-member panel will come up with a plan that Republicans and Democrats can support. Iraq is riven by sectarian violence nearly four years after the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein.

Bush and panel members exchanged questions about Iraq during a closed session that lasted more than an hour. The president later described the meeting as a "general conversation about the situation there."

Bush emphasized his misgivings about talks with Syria and Iran after meeting with Olmert.

He and Olmert said Iran aimed to develop nuclear weapons, even though Tehran insisted its nuclear program was intended only for energy purposes. Bush said if Iran failed to suspend nuclear enrichment, world powers should take steps to economically isolate Tehran.

Olmert said Iran was "not just a threat for Israel but for the whole world."

However, Israel would not oppose U.S.-Iranian negotiations, a senior Israeli official said after the Bush-Olmert meeting. Although Israel had "no objection to talking," said the senior official, speaking on condition of anonymity, it would want the U.S. to use any diplomatic opening to emphasize the nuclear question.

Bush expressed skepticism about proposals for gradual troop withdrawals in Iraq despite new efforts by Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who is expected to become the next chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Levin said he thought his proposal could gain a bipartisan majority in the Senate.

Giving Iraqi leaders a firm date for a U.S. drawdown would pressure the Shiite Muslim majority to make concessions to the Sunni Arab minority, Levin said. If they did not make concessions, Levin said, he expected the country's chaos would worsen.

There are "a number of Republicans who want us to change course and to do so in a way which will send a message to the Iraqis that this is their responsibility and we cannot save them from themselves," Levin said.

Members of the Iraq Study Group spent most of the day at the White House talking to administration officials, including Rice, Vice President Dick Cheney, national security advisor Stephen Hadley, National Intelligence Director John D. Negroponte, CIA Director Michael V. Hayden, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Peter Pace.

Today, the group is to meet senior members of the Clinton administration, including former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, former national security advisor Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, former United Nations Ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke and possibly former President Clinton.

The panel also is scheduled to speak to Blair.

Although Bush is holding firm against some of the leading proposals for changes in Iraq, his choice of words has suggested an evolution in his goals.

The president has often declared that the U.S. aim in Iraq is to establish a democracy in the heart of the Middle East that could serve as an example to nearby countries. On Monday, Bush said his definition of success in Iraq was "a government which can sustain, govern and defend itself, and will serve as an ally in this war on terror."

He did not mention democracy.

In Iraq, U.S. military commanders have grown more emphatic about prodding the Maliki government, which they consider disorganized and unwilling to disarm militias.

Abizaid's meeting with Maliki was the third unannounced visit by a top U.S. official since the end of October. Abizaid's visit followed ones by Hadley and Negroponte.

Blair, while calling for engagement with Iran, also underlined the need to enlist moderate Arabs throughout the Middle East by demonstrating a commitment to resolving conflicts in the Palestinian territories and in Lebanon.

"Just as it is, in significant part, forces outside Iraq that are trying to create mayhem inside Iraq, so we have to have a strategy that pins them back, not only in Iraq but outside of it too," Blair said in a speech intended to clarify how America's strongest ally in Iraq viewed the next round of strategy to end the conflict.

In a briefing with reporters, Blair's official spokesman said British officials thought Syria and Iran should be given "a strategic choice" about cooperating on Iraq and elsewhere in the region.

The key, Blair said, is talking to Iran from a position of strength, once the "pressure points" Tehran is using elsewhere in the Middle East "to thwart us" are relieved.

"Offer Iran a clear strategic choice: They help the Middle East peace process, not hinder it; they stop supporting terrorism in Lebanon or Iraq; and they abide by, not flout, their international obligations. In that case, a new partnership is possible. Or alternatively they face the consequences of not doing so: isolation," Blair said.

The war in Iraq has claimed the lives of 125 British troops, and as early as 2004, Britain's army commanders expressed an interest in drawing down by at least a third the 8,000 troops deployed by the nation.

But London has been waiting for the U.S. to move first and has been hamstrung by the deteriorating security situation that has impeded the withdrawal of American forces.

Blair, who has faced strong criticism at home for appearing to follow Washington's lead too closely, made it clear that Britain intended to remain a strong ally of the U.S.

"Our partnership with America and our membership of the European Union are precisely suited to Britain," he said. "For that reason, it would be insane, in my judgment — yes, I would put it as strongly as that — for us to give up either relationship."

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paul.richter@latimes.com

Times staff writers Kim Murphy in London, Julian E. Barnes and Doyle McManus in Washington and Alexandra Zavis in Baghdad and a special correspondent in Baghdad contributed to this report.