Bush ready for critical meeting Monday with Shiite leader

Monday, December 4th 2006, 6:17 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Under pressure to change course in Iraq, President Bush will meet on Thursday with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, his closest ally in the U.S.-led war. The meeting comes a day after Bush receives the recommendations from a blue-ribbon commission exploring different approaches for Iraq.

The Bush-Blair meeting was announced Monday - the same day Bush was to meet at the White House with Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, the Shiite leader of the largest bloc in Iraq's parliament.

These developments come amid an atmosphere of rising expectations about a new U.S. policy in Iraq and an acknowledgment by President Bush's national security adviser that Bush accepts that a new approach is warranted.

National security adviser Stephen Hadley said Sunday that while Bush recognizes something different needs to be done, the president won't use the recommendations due this week from the Iraq Study Group as political cover for bringing troops home.

"We have not failed in Iraq," Hadley said as he made the talk show rounds Sunday. "We will fail in Iraq if we pull out our troops before we're in a position to help the Iraqis succeed."

He added: "The president understands that we need to have a way forward in Iraq that is more successful."

But, with the leak of another insider's secret memo, the second in a week, the administration found itself on the defensive.

The latest, first reported in Sunday's New York Times, showed that Donald H. Rumsfeld called for a "major adjustment" in U.S. tactics on Nov. 6 _ the day before an election that cost Republicans the Congress and Rumsfeld his job as defense secretary.

Hadley played down the memo as a laundry list of ideas rather than a call for a new course of action.

He said that Bush _ just before a pivotal election _ was not portraying a different sense of the war to the public than his own defense secretary was giving him in private.

The president "has said publicly what Rumsfeld said, that things are not proceeding well enough or fast enough in Iraq," Hadley said.

Democrats did not buy that.

"The Rumsfeld memo makes it quite clear that one of the greatest concerns is the political fallout from changing course here in the United States," said Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., the incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "The bottom line is there is no one, including the former secretary, who thought the policy the president continues to pursue makes any sense."

Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., said the Rumsfeld memo was an example of how the administration has been "mischaracterizing and misstating this war." He said the Iraq conflict had devolved into a civil war. "There's two factions fighting for supremacy inside Iraq and our troops are caught in between," Murtha said on NBC's "Today" show. As incoming chairman of the House Defense Appropriations subcommittee, Murtha said he would put pressure on the administration to redeploy U.S. troops there.

Bush has nominated Robert Gates to replace Rumsfeld. His confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee is on Tuesday.

As pressure builds for a new strategy, the report from the Iraq Study Group increasingly is viewed as perhaps clearing the way for a U.S. exit strategy in Iraq. Hadley, though, said the review will be just one factor the White House considers.

After a meeting last week in Jordan, Bush expressed confidence that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his government can lead the country toward peace with support from the United States.

Yet Hadley found himself defending his own memo that called that very point into question.

Written on Nov. 8 but disclosed just before Bush's meeting with the Iraqi leader, the memo described al-Maliki as "either ignorant of what is going on, misrepresenting his intentions or that his capabilities are not yet sufficient to turn his good intentions into action."

Hadley said Sunday about the memo: "I made an assessment, raised a number of questions, hard questions that should have been raised. But if you look at that memo and if you look at what the president said in the press conference after the meeting with Prime Minister Maliki, it is clear that this government shares our objective for Iraq and has the will and desire to take responsibility."

Hadley appeared Sunday on ABC's "This Week," NBC's "Meet the Press," and `Face the Nation" on CBS. Biden was on "Fox News Sunday.