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Experts Advise Bush Not to Reduce Troops

Even as the president has been reviewing his approach to the war, he has not backed off his position that victory in Iraq is crucial to victory in a larger fight against terrorism. Bush also calls it essential for Iraq to be stabilized as a functioning democracy -- a sweeping goal on which the Iraq Study Group's report was notably silent.

"Iraq is a central component of defeating the extremists who want to establish safe haven in the Middle East, extremists who would use their safe haven from which to attack the United States," Bush said. "This is really the calling of our time, that is, to defeat the extremists and radicals."

When the White House review began, the interagency group debated whether to try to beat the Iraqi Study Group's report or let it play out and then look "bigger and better" by doing a report later, said an official familiar with the discussions. It was agreed to wait. But the emphasis throughout the month-long process has been to produce a strategy that would be deliberately distinct, the official added.

The White House review does not have the depth or scope of the Iraq Study Group's, according to officials familiar with the deliberations. "There's a lack of thinking on other big issues -- oil, the economy, infrastructure and jobs," said one source who was briefed on the interagency discussions and requested anonymity because talks are ongoing.

During yesterday's White House meeting, Bush asked all the questions, except for one at the end from Cheney, a source said. But Cheney took copious notes throughout, filling several pages, he said. "They didn't really reveal their own views" in their questions, said retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, one of the five participants.

As a whole, the group of retired generals and academics who met Bush tend to be skeptical of the Iraq Study Group's proposals, and so were able to give him additional reasons to reject its recommendations.

The first to speak was Eliot A. Cohen, an expert in military strategy at Johns Hopkins University, who has criticized the study group's findings, particularly on engaging Iran and Syria and on decreasing combat troops. He was followed by Keane, McCaffrey and Wayne A. Downing, all retired four-star Army generals. Two have told friends they are skeptical of the study group's recommendation to cut U.S. combat forces over the next year while quadrupling the size of the training and advisory effort, which currently numbers around 4,000.

Staff writer Robin Wright contributed to this report.

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