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White House debating new Iraq strategies, including whether to send more troops

Updated:
WASHINGTON (AP) In a rush to chart a new course for the Iraq war, President Bush's national security team is debating whether additional troops are needed to secure Baghdad, a short-term force increase that could be made up of all Americans, a combination of U.S. and Iraqi forces, or all Iraqis, a senior administration official said Saturday.

Other options being debated for inclusion in what the president has said will be his "new way forward" include a revamped approach to procuring the help of other nations in calming Iraq; scaling back the military mission to focus almost exclusively on hunting al-Qaida terrorists; and a new strategy of outreach to all of Iraq's factions, whose disputes are fueling some of the worst bloodshed since the war began, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the disclosure of internal discussions had not been authorized.

The official would not disclose how the administration was leaning in each of these areas, or provide details of the many other options said to remain on the table. The source cautioned that although Bush is planning to present his plan to the nation in a speech in the next two weeks, the discussions remain fluid and no final decisions have been made.

However, military leaders have portrayed a surge of additional forces as an unattractive option, and the Iraq Study Group did not recommend one.

In his weekly radio address Saturday, the president praised the report by the independent, bipartisan panel on Iraq, heralding its support for his goal of a country that can govern, sustain and defend itself. While ignoring the sections of the Iraq Study Group's report that criticize his administration's handling of the war and recommend a radically different strategy, Bush said he was pleased the panel did not suggest a hasty withdrawal of U.S. troops.

"The group declared that such a withdrawal would `almost certainly produce greater sectarian violence' and lead to `a significant power vacuum, greater human suffering, regional destabilization and a threat to the global economy,"' the president said, quoting from the report.

Since Wednesday's release of the group's 79-recommendation prescription for change, which it said was needed quickly to turn around a "grave and deteriorating" situation, Bush has appeared to set the stage for going in his own direction.

The president has said he will consider all of the panel's recommendations while awaiting the conclusion of parallel Iraq policy reviews by the Pentagon, State Department and White House National Security Council.

But Bush has already been publicly cool to the panel's key proposals -- which called for direct engagement with Iran and Syria as part of a new diplomatic initiative and a pullback of all American combat brigades by early 2008, barring unexpected developments, to shift the U.S. mission to training and advising.

The president's own due diligence on Iraq continues all week.

On Monday, he goes to the State Department for a presentation on diplomatic and political options, and then meets in the Oval Office with independent Iraq experts. On Tuesday, the president confers in a video conference with senior military commanders and Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, the top U.S. diplomat in Iraq. On Wednesday, he meets with senior defense officials at the Pentagon.

On the political front, some have argued for a tilt away from minority Sunni dissidents to Shiites, who dominate the government and the country's largest sect. But the administration's internal review may instead recommend a wholly revamped U.S. approach that focuses less on playing middleman between major Shiite and Sunni political factions in the government in Baghdad and more on identifying new moderate leaders from across Iraq's political spectrum.

Administration officials point to Bush's recent meetings as evidence he is getting involved in a different way in the political infighting among Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. Earlier this week, Bush met with the leader of the largest Shiite bloc in Iraq's parliament, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim. On Tuesday, he meets with a Sunni leader, Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi.

Diplomatically, though Bush still objects to talks with Iran and Syria, a debate continues about which nations to try to engage and in what forum to approach them, the source said.

Democrats, meanwhile, continued to push for Bush to adopt the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group.

"Their report confirms what most of us have known for some time -- President Bush's policy of stay the course is not working," Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, the incoming chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said in his party's weekly radio remarks. "We must launch a new diplomatic offensive to engage Iraq's neighbors and the international community in the process of stabilizing Iraq and that region. President Bush has not done this, but he must because our nation's security and the well-being of our 150,000 troops there depend on it."
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