By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 22, 2006
President Bush met with his top advisers and military commanders on Iraq yesterday in a White House session that, senior officials said, weighed options for forging a way forward amid the surging violence but did not contemplate any major shifts in strategy.
The participants in the 90-minute video conference -- who included Vice President Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad and Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the military commander in Iraq -- talked about tactical changes that could overcome the severe challenges posed by the war, officials said.
"The participants focused on the nature of the enemy, the challenges in Iraq, how to better pursue our strategy, and the stakes of succeeding for the region and the security of the American people," said White House spokeswoman Nicole Guillemard.
The meeting, which the White House called the third in a series Bush has held with this group to consult on the war, did not consider any significant policy changes, a senior official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss private meetings. And in his Saturday radio address, Bush offered no indications on any major shift, even as he acknowledged the increasing violence in Iraq.
"Our goal is clear and unchanging: Our goal is victory," he said. "What is changing are the tactics we use to achieve that goal. Our commanders on the ground are constantly adjusting their approach to stay ahead of the enemy, particularly in Baghdad."
The high-level meeting came amid growing U.S. frustration with the deteriorating state of affairs in Iraq, where both civilian and U.S. military casualties have sharply increased in recent weeks. The surge in violence, coupled with the growing antipathy among the American public toward the war, is feeding a sense that the Bush administration will be forced to retreat from its open-ended support of the war.
In a news conference Friday, Rumsfeld emphasized that U.S. officials are pressing the Iraqi government to offer projections about when it will be able to take over a greater share of the responsibility for securing the country and making economic and political progress.
"The biggest mistake would be not to pass things over to the Iraqis," Rumsfeld said. "It's their country. They're going to have to govern it. They're going to have to provide security for it. And they're going to have to do it sooner rather than later."
White House officials denied a New York Times report, posted yesterday afternoon on the newspaper's Web site, that said the administration is drafting a timetable for the Iraqi government to take on that greater role in securing the country.
If the Iraqis fail to meet the timetable, the Times quoted an unnamed senior Pentagon official as saying, the Bush administration would consider an abrupt shift in policy short of troop withdrawals. It would mark the first time that the administration has used deadline threats to pressure the Iraqi government to more aggressively pursue progress.
"The story is not accurate," said Frederick L. Jones II, a spokesman for the National Security Council.
White House officials said the matter was not discussed at yesterday's meeting. Still, administration officials acknowledge that they have been pressing for months for the Iraqis to take greater responsibility for disarming warring militias and to take other steps to stabilize their country.
Benchmarks have been part of the U.S. policy in Iraq for months, said Dan Bartlett, a top aide to Bush.
"Implicit in that is that if they are not achieving the benchmarks, we are going to have to make changes accordingly," Bartlett said, adding that troop withdrawals or other dramatic changes in U.S. policy are not being contemplated.
Casey has been working on a series of benchmarks for handing over to the Iraqi government control of both military bases and entire areas of the country. At a recent news conference, Casey said he expects six or seven more provinces in Iraq to come under full control of the government by the end of the year, although Rumsfeld said Friday that "there's no doubt" some of Casey's projections will not be met.
Currently, the Iraqi government has control of two of the country's 18 provinces, meaning that local police can keep order without routine help from the U.S.-led military coalition.
"We are constantly developing new tactics to achieve our goal," Jones said. "We've been coordinating with the Iraqis for months on a series of measures they can take to assume more control of their country."
Diane Farrell, a Democratic candidate for Congress, gave her party's national radio response to Bush, saying: "To be blunt, the president and the Republican Congress have been wrong on Iraq and wrong to keep their failed strategy. . . . An arbitrary departure date could be dangerous, but real goals for the new Iraqi government and its army are necessary."
Farrell, who is running against Rep. Christopher Shays in Connecticut, said Democrats will hold Bush accountable for the war in Iraq if they gain control of either the Senate or House in midterm elections next month.
Yesterday's meeting took place amid a significant increase in violence around Iraq. At least 78 U.S. troops have been killed so far in Iraq this month -- the highest daily rate since January 2005. Attacks in Baghdad have surged 43 percent since midsummer, despite the presence of thousands of U.S. troops, while nationally more than 100 Iraqis a day are being killed, according to the United Nations.
U.S. commanders are trying to decide whether to send more troops to Iraq.
Bush said in his radio address that the increase in violence is attributable in part to a more aggressive posture being taken by U.S. troops. Still, he said, Americans have faced tough battles before.
"In World War II and the Cold War, earlier generations of Americans sacrificed so that we can live in freedom," he said. "This generation will do its duty as well."
Staff writer Ann Scott Tyson contributed to this report.