Wednesday, December 13, 2006

White House to Delay Shift on Iraq Until ’07

WASHINGTON, Dec. 12 — The White House said Tuesday that President Bush would delay presenting any new strategy for Iraq until early next year, as officials suggested that Mr. Bush’s advisers were locked in internal debates on several fronts about how to proceed.

The absence of an immediate new American plan for Iraq is adding to anxiety among Iraq’s moderate neighbors, who identify with the country’s minority Sunni Arab population, and has opened the way for new proposals from many quarters, in Iraq as well as in Washington, about the next steps. But several administration officials said Mr. Bush had concluded that the decisions about troops, political pressure and diplomacy were too complicated to rush in order to lay out a plan to the nation before Christmas.

The White House decision prompted criticism from Democratic Congressional leaders and from at least one Republican senator who said Mr. Bush was failing to show sufficient urgency about Iraq despite months of escalating violence there.

The Iraq Study Group’s report last week portrayed the situation in Iraq as “grave and deteriorating,” and on Tuesday alone, 70 Iraqis were killed and more than 200 wounded in a truck-bomb attack in a central Baghdad square.

Among the complicated debates under way within the administration is the question of whether the United States should dispatch more American troops to Baghdad as part of a short-term surge aimed at quashing such attacks. The idea of a surge has been raised repeatedly by Stephen J. Hadley, the national security adviser, but has prompted skepticism from commanders on the ground about its effectiveness.

Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is not expected to advocate a surge when he briefs Mr. Bush at the Pentagon on Wednesday. A White House official said Mr. Hadley was only keeping options open for the president and not necessarily advocating one over another.

A central thrust of the discussions at all levels of the administration is how to pressure Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki to move faster to provide basic services and quell sectarian violence — some of which stems from his powerful supporter, the radical Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr — and whether to force him to meet certain benchmarks or face penalties and rewards, also to be determined.

The administration is also debating whether to back a Shiite government in the conflict with the Sunnis, or to seek a new strategy for national reconciliation between Sunni and Shiite factions that would be intended to expand the political base of Mr. Maliki, at Mr. Sadr’s expense.

Some members of the administration, including some in Vice President Dick Cheney’s office, have argued that the administration needs to provide clear support to a strong Shiite majority government, but the State Department, led by Condoleezza Rice, views that as a recipe for perpetual civil war. Ms. Rice has instead advocated a proposal intended to woo centrist Sunni leaders to Mr. Maliki’s side, including provincial leaders. One senior administration official said reports of internal arguments on this issue were “overblown” because “everyone believes in national reconciliation.”

The internal administration discussions were described by officials from the Pentagon, the State Department, the White House and outside the administration who had been briefed on the deliberations. None of them were willing to be identified, but they represented various points of view in the debate.

Mr. Bush consulted by videoconference on Tuesday morning with top American commanders in Baghdad, and the White House announced shortly afterward that the strategy would be made known later than previously announced.

In an interview, Senator Chuck Hagel, the Nebraska Republican who is often critical of the president’s war policy, called the delay “unpardonable” and added: “Every day that goes by, we are losing ground.” Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader in the Senate, said in a statement, “Waiting and delaying on Iraq serves no one’s interests.”

A senior administration official said Mr. Bush had decided over the last two days to prolong the deliberations based on a concern that a pre-Christmas announcement might quickly be overtaken by events. That happened to Mr. Bush in late 2005 after he used a series of speeches to unveil a “Plan for Victory” in Iraq.

“The president knows he’s got only one shot at this speech,” said a senior administration official involved in the debate. “He didn’t want to make half-way announcements.”

Tony Snow, the White House press secretary, said the administration was continuing to “whittle away at options” and seeking more information from advisers, but already had a clear idea of the general outlines of his new approach. Mr. Bush also wanted to allow more time for Robert M. Gates, the incoming defense secretary, to weigh the military options he will ultimately have to carry out, the spokesman said. But Mr. Snow acknowledged that the debate continued.

“Look, there is one camp — it is the camp that works for the president,” Mr. Snow said. “Now, people are going to have disagreements, and there may be some areas on which there are still going to be debates, but most have kind of been ironed out. I would not rule out the fact that there may be some discussion on some points.”

Several officials said the administration was currently leaning away from a plan advocated by some in Mr. Cheney’s office in which the United States would effectively choose sides and direct outsized support to Iraqi Shiites at the expense of the Sunnis. Some administration officials say the discussion about tilting toward Shiites may be intended in part to put pressure on Sunni leaders who might crack down on extremists within their ranks to pre-empt any such policy change.

Ms. Rice has instead advocated propping up moderate Sunnis and encouraging them to support Mr. Maliki. As part of that approach, the United States would work with Sunni tribal leaders who have become disenchanted with the Sunni insurgency, a move long advocated by Saudi Arabia.

Mr. Bush met Tuesday with the Iraqi vice president, Tariq al-Hashemi, an influential moderate Sunni who would presumably be part of the coalition supporting Mr. Maliki. That meeting was initially planned for next month but the White House said Mr. Hashemi had requested an earlier visit.

American officials regard security in Baghdad as essential to political and economic stability, but there continues to be debate between those who support giving Iraqis the lead in combating sectarian violence and those who do not, and those who support a large surge of forces in Baghdad and those who do not. “Some believe there needs to be a visible demonstration of our commitment,” a senior administration official said. But another official who does not support a surge said “the mission in Iraq requires strategic patience and the realization that it is going to take time to get it right.”


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