Bush meets with Blair, says panel's Iraq recommendations among several he'll consider

Thursday, December 7th 2006, 9:57 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP-) _ President Bush said Thursday that a bipartisan panel's call for a major course change in Iraq was "a really important part of our considerations," but just one of several major sets of recommendations he will consider as he charts a new strategy.

Standing alongside chief Iraq war ally Tony Blair of Britain, the president acknowledged: "It's bad in Iraq." But he said he wanted to wait for reviews from the Pentagon and the State Department before he makes any final decisions on how to proceed.

Bush said he would make a major speech to the nation once he has completed his reviews.

Their meeting came a day after the Iraq Study Group headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton issued a withering report saying Iraq war policies had failed and a major course correction was needed, including beginning to withdraw combat troops.

"If the present situation needs to be changed, it follows that we'll change it," Bush said. He said he would make major policy decisions "after I get the reports" over the next several weeks.

He called the Baker-Hamilton report "certainly an important part of our deliberations and an important part of our discussions this morning." At the same time, Bush said, "I don't think Jim Baker and Lee Hamilton expect us to accept every recommendation."

Actually, both Baker and Hamilton had depicted their report as comprehensive and urged Bush not to cherry-pick among its recommendations.

Baker said earlier Thursday that he believes the study "is probably the only bipartisan report he's going to get and it's extremely important that we approach this issue in a bipartisan way."

The report, which contains 79 separate recommendations, says that Bush's Iraq policy is not working, warns the situation in Iraq is "grave and deteriorating" and calls for most US combat troops to be withdrawn by early 2008.

As to which parts of the report he might accept, "I think you're probably going to have to pay attention to my speech coming up here when I get all the recommendations," Bush said in a joint news conference with the British prime minister.

"I do know that we have not succeeded as fast as we wanted to succeed. I do understand that progress is not as rapid as I had hoped," Bush said. "And therefore it makes sense to analyze the situation and to devise a set of tactics and strategies to achieve the objective that I have stated," the president said.

For his part, Blair said he welcomed the Baker-Hamilton report despite its depiction of a failed policy that both he and Bush had previously embraced.

"It offers a strong way forward. I think it is important now we concentrate on the elements that are necessary to make sure that we succeed _ because the consequences of failure are severe," Blair said.

Bush appeared to endorse the bipartisan panel's conclusion that any resolution of the Iraq conflict is tied to reducing tensions between Israel and the Palestinians and across the broader Middle East _ a position Blair has long held.

"It's a tough time and its a difficult moment for America and Great Britain and the task before us is daunting," Bush said, even as members of the bipartisan commission were testifying on their report on Capitol Hill.

Both Bush and Blair said that supporting the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was central to efforts to help Iraq defend, govern and sustain itself. They both urged al-Maliki to do more to assert control and quell violence.

"The American people expect us to come up with a new strategy," Bush said.

Bush was asked whether the study group's report didn't suggest that he, in fact, did not appreciate the extent of the violence coursing through Iraqi streets.

"It's bad in Iraq. That help?" retorted Bush..

"You know, in all due respect, I've been saying it a lot," Bush continued. "I understand how tough it is and have been telling the American people how tough it is. And they know how tough it is."

One of the study group's central recommendations was for the administration to reach out to Syria and Iran for help in stabilizing Iraq, a course Bush has rejected in the past and confronted skeptically on Thursday.

"Countries that participate in talks must not fund terrorism, must help the young democracy survive, must help with the economics of the country," Bush said. "If people are not committed, if Syria and Iran is not committed to that concept, then they shouldn't bother to show up."

For his part, Blair suggested that Iran's support for Shiite militants in southern Iraq presented a problem. "Iran has been...basically arming, supporting, financing terrorism," the visiting British leader said.

In Tel Aviv, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he disagreed with the advisory group's linkage between Iraq and other conflicts in the Middle East. He told a news conference that conditions were not ripe to reopen long-dormant talks with Syria

Blair said the terrorists' threat in Iraq is part of an old pattern that is region-wide. Terrorism "has basically come out of the Middle East" and must be addressed in a way that includes a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, he said.

There are currently some 135,000 US soldiers and 7,100 British soldiers serving in Iraq.