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Bush Weighs Iraq Options With Top Security Officials

Roger RunningenThu Dec 28, 12:38 PM ET

Dec. 28 (Bloomberg) -- President George W. Bush is set to huddle with his national-security team today at his Crawford, Texas, ranch as he weighs whether to increase U.S. troops in Iraq.

Bush meets at his 1,600-acre prairie retreat with Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Peter Pace and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, among others.

The Bush administration is under pressure from lawmakers and the public to implement a new strategy in Iraq after a year of setbacks brought on by escalating violence between majority Shiites and minority Sunnis.

Bush won't be rushed into a decision, which is still planned for sometime after Jan. 1, White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said yesterday.

``In terms of pressure, it's the president's desire that appropriate consideration is given to all options,'' Stanzel said at a briefing in Crawford. ``He continues to ask questions. The president wants to make sure he's taking the appropriate amount of time'' for ensuring a ``stable and peaceful Iraq.''

Bush is considering as one option an increase in the number of U.S. troops to suppress sectarian violence. Attacks in Iraq averaged almost 1,000 a week between Aug. 12 and Nov. 10, a record, the Pentagon said in a Dec. 19 quarterly report on the conflict.

The war has claimed the lives of at least 2,979 U.S. military members as of today, according to Pentagon figures. That exceeds the 2,973 deaths from the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, in New York and at the Pentagon near Washington and in the crash of a hijacked airliner in Pennsylvania.

Bipartisan Panel

On Dec. 6 a bipartisan panel of senior statesmen chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker, 76, and former congressman Lee Hamilton, 75, of Indiana recommended to Bush that most combat troops leave Iraq by 2008 and that the U.S. seek Iran and Syria's help to stabilize the country.

Bush opposes a withdrawal deadline and has ruled out unconditional talks with Iran and Syria, which border Iraq.

The officials were to gather at the Bush ranch at 10:30 a.m. Washington time, with the president scheduled to make a statement to the news media later, Stanzel said.

Bush is facing criticism from officials inside and outside of government for considering an increase in the troop level.

Senator Joseph Biden, a Delaware Democrat who is the incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he would oppose an increase in troops.

Troop Surge

Bush said in a Dec. 20 news conference that the size of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps needs to increase to ease the strain of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A troop surge, he said, must be tied to ``a specific mission that can be accomplished with the addition of more troops.''

The Washington Post, citing unidentified officials familiar with the debate, reported Dec. 19 that the proposal Bush is considering would send between 15,000 and 30,000 additional troops for six to eight months.

``If we stay the course, add more troops, try what we've done before, it seems to me we're in the worst of all circumstances,'' Biden said on CBS's ``Early Show'' on Dec. 26. Biden said Iraq must reach a political agreement, and more troops means there's ``nothing forcing them to have to reach an agreement among themselves.''

In response, Bush spokesman Stanzel said yesterday, ``I hope that Senator Biden would wait to hear what the president has to say before announcing what he's opposed to.''

Some analysts said the U.S. should set a deadline and resist the urge to increase troop levels in Iraq. There are about 140,000 U.S. military personnel in Iraq now.

`Occupation Mentality'

`If you send more troops you really reinforce the occupation mentality,'' said Lawrence Korb, former assistant secretary of defense under President Ronald Reagan. Korb and John Podesta, former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, said Congress should set a deadline for withdrawal.

``Once we set a date certain, that becomes their problem, not ours anymore,'' Korb said in a telephone news conference with Podesta. Both men are now with the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based research group that supports many policy initiatives of the Democratic Party.

Republicans say more troops will quell sectarian violence, creating the right conditions for a political solution to the conflict between Shiites and Sunnis.

``You're not going to have a political solution with this much violence,'' Republican Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina told ABC's ``This Week'' on Dec. 24. ``So the surge of troops is, I think, very necessary. Additional combat capability co-joined with political reform will be successful.''

To contact the reporter on this story: Roger Runningen in Crawford, Texas, at rrunningen@bloomberg.net

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