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Bush vows new course in Iraq

By Kristin Roberts and Ibon Villelabeitia 35 minutes ago

President Bush pledged on Wednesday to chart "a new way forward" in Iraq and said he would only consider boosting U.S. troop numbers there if he was sure it would help to curb rampant sectarian violence.

His new defense secretary, Robert Gates, making a first trip to Iraq to talk to U.S. commanders and Iraqi officials, said commanders were concerned that a surge in U.S. forces might delay the time when Iraqis can take control.

"We are looking at all options and that includes increasing more troops," Bush told a news conference in Washington. "I have not made up my mind.

"There has to be a specific mission that can be accomplished with more troops before I agree on that strategy."

Bush is expected to announce a new U.S. strategy early in the new year for the unpopular war, which has so far claimed the lives of nearly 3,000 U.S. soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqis since the U.S. invasion in 2003.

"My administration will work with Republicans and Democrats to fashion a new way forward that can succeed in Iraq," he said. "We can ask more of our Iraqi partners and we will," he added.

Critics of Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki accuse him of doing little to break the cycle of revenge killings between majority Shi'ites and minority Sunnis.

In Baghdad, the Interior Ministry said police found 76 bodies in different districts of the capital, all with gunshot wounds and many with signs of torture, apparent victims of the sectarian death squads blamed for fuelling the violence.

The police typically report finding about 50 bodies a day. The U.S. military also reported the deaths of two U.S. soldiers killed in two separate roadside bombings in Baghdad.

Gates, accompanied by General Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, arrived in Baghdad for a two-day visit to meet U.S. commanders and Iraqi leaders and see for himself the war he has said America is not winning.

He said commanders had expressed concern that a surge in U.S. forces might delay the time when Iraqis can assume control for security. He said he wanted to speak with Iraq's prime minister before making a judgment.

"I think before I draw any conclusions on that I want to talk to the prime minister and others in the Iraqi government. It's clearly a consideration. The commanders here have expressed a concern about that."

"FAILURE NOT AN OPTION"

The former CIA director's visit follows a Pentagon report that said violence was at an all-time high and that the Mehdi Army militia of Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al Sadr had overtaken Sunni Islamist al Qaeda as the biggest threat to peace in Iraq.

Bush, who is facing mounting pressure to reduce America's military commitment in Iraq, predicted eventual victory and said the United States would not be "run out" of the Middle East by the Iraq crisis.

"Failure in Iraq will condemn a generation of young Americans to permanent threat from overseas. Therefore, we will succeed in Iraq."

Gates, who replaced Donald Rumsfeld, said on Monday failure in Iraq "would be a calamity that would haunt our nation, impair our credibility and endanger Americans for decades to come."

More than 3-1/2 years after the invasion to topple Saddam Hussein, Iraq is gripped by soaring violence between majority Shi'ites and once-dominant Sunnis.

Shortly before Gates arrived, a suicide car bomber rammed his vehicle into a police checkpoint near Baghdad University, killing 11 people and wounding 31, security sources said.

South of the capital, U.S.-led troops handed over command of Najaf province, home to Iraq's Shi'ite clerical establishment, to Iraqi security forces under a plan to gradually transfer security and allow the withdrawal of 130,000 American troops.

Maliki has said Iraqis can take over security of all the country's 18 provinces by June despite doubts about the capabilities and the sectarian loyalties of the army and police. (Additional reporting by Aseel Kami in Baghdad and Claudia Parsons in Najaf, Caren Bohan in Washington)

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