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Major Change Expected In Strategy for Iraq War

White House officials describe the current turmoil over Iraq policy in Washington as an expected byproduct of the upsurge in violence. Press secretary Tony Snow yesterday dismissed a dramatic about-face in policy -- such as a division of the country or phased withdrawal -- as a "non-starter" and called the idea that the White House will seek a course correction in Iraq "a bunch of hooey."

Bush has been adamant that the United States will not withdraw its troops until the Iraqi government can defend itself.

Like many who have met with the president in recent months to discuss Iraq policy, author and military expert Robert Kaplan said he detected clear limits to Bush's flexibility. "He seemed genuinely to enjoy the challenges to his policy that we threw at him," Kaplan said, describing a session Bush held with several outside strategists at Camp David in June. "He wasn't at all defensive. He appeared open to any new direction or tactic, except withdrawal, and yet that is what he might be faced with after November."

Along with the political debate, there also is growing frustration inside the U.S. military over Iraq, with some officers debating privately whether the situation there is salvageable. In recent weeks, senior military officers have offered a torrent of negative comments, a sharp contrast to the official optimism of the past three years.

"We're obviously very concerned about what we're seeing" in Baghdad, Army Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell, the top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, said yesterday. He indicated that changes to a plan to restore security to the capital are being considered. "We find the insurgent elements, the extremists, are in fact punching back hard," Caldwell said.

In recent days, the demand for change on Iraq has been especially notable from inside the president's party: Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, returned from a trip to Iraq saying that country was adrift and all options should be considered. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a conservative Republican from Texas, said this week that she is willing to consider the wisdom of somehow breaking up Iraq.

Until now, Democrats' calls for withdrawing troops have been largely irrelevant, but if Democrats take one or both houses of Congress next month, their views could become significant in shaping strategy.

Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), who would take over the chairmanship of the Armed Services Committee, said he favors beginning a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops that "gives the Iraqis notice that they're going to be looking into the abyss" unless they make necessary changes.

One version of this option was presented to House Democrats last month by former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, who outlined a four-step plan that would include a joint declaration by the U.S. and Iraqi governments on a timeline for the departure of U.S. troops, a follow-up international conference on stabilizing Iraq and a greater focus on economic reconstruction.

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), who is campaigning to become the new majority leader should Democrats take power, said many in his caucus like the idea behind the Brzezinski plan, though perhaps not all the specifics. "The Iraqis have to understand that there is a time frame," he said. "Our commitment is substantial, but it is not unending."

People familiar with the work of the Iraq Study Group say it is also mulling a variant of the gradual withdrawal idea that would move U.S. troops out of Iraq but leave a residual force in the region to keep the violence from spreading and Iraq's neighbors from meddling.

Another idea getting a closer look is a new power-sharing agreement that would give more power to autonomous regions -- Kurdish in the north, Sunni in the middle and Shiite in the south -- while weakening the central government. This idea is most closely identified with Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), the senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, and Leslie H. Gelb, a former president of the Council on Foreign Relations. Because there is no oil in what would be the Sunni-controlled area, Biden and Gelb envision some sort of scheme to share oil revenue with the Sunnis to get them to agree to such a plan.

Biden said yesterday that if the Democrats win big in next month's elections, "You have a lot of Republicans who are going to openly join Democrats and will push back hard against the president."

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