WASHINGTON – President Bush personally assured Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki Monday that he has no plans to pull troops out and told him to ignore rumors that the United States intended to enforce a deadline for Baghdad to rein in sectarian violence.
The president's pledge came in a 15-minute morning phone call with al-Maliki, who told Bush he was concerned because he had been hearing that the United States was giving him a two-month timeline to operate on his own.
"He (al-Maliki) said that rumors sometimes can undercut confidence in the government and also its ability to work effectively in fighting terror," said Bush spokesman Tony Snow. "And the president said, `Don't worry, you still have our full support.' "
Snow said he wasn't clear where the rumors were coming from, although there is growing frustration in Congress and across the country about Iraq. Snow said that in his talk with al-Maliki, Bush did not express any sense of urgency. Casualties have been increasing amid almost daily violence has eroded support for the war in the United States.
Bush initiated the call to Maliki. Snow said the prime minister made clear that talk about "giving timetables or expiration dates or whatever to the government were not only undermining the government, but also inspiring terrorists. ... And, similarly, he dismissed the notion of partition, which he also thought was undermining the government.
The White House also said that Bush would not be bound by the recommendations of a special commission exploring U.S. options in Iraq. The group, led by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, is to report its recommendations after the elections.
"This is something you listen to seriously," Snow said. "But we're not going to outsource the business of handling the war in Iraq. ... The president is the commander in chief. And simply because you have a blue-ribbon panel, it does not mean that he hands it off to them."
A growing number of U.S. lawmakers are calling for a new strategy in Iraq, including two leading Republican senators who spoke out Sunday on television talk shows.
"The American people are not going to continue to support, sustain a policy that puts American troops in the middle of a civil war," Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., said on CNN's "Late Edition."
Hagel said he agreed with Virginia Republican Sen. John Warner, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who asserted after a recent visit to Iraq that the wartorn country was "drifting sideways." Warner has urged consideration of a change of course if the Iraq government fails to restore order over the next two months or three months.
Warner said Sunday he stands by that assessment, and even in the week since his trip to Iraq, there has been an "exponential increase in the killings and the savagery that's going on over there."
"You can see some movement forward, but a lot of movement back," Warner said on "Face the Nation" on CBS. "We have to rethink all the options, except any option which says we precipitously pull out, which would let that country fall into a certain civil war at that time, and all of the neighboring countries would be destabilized."
Snow said Bush and al-Maliki agreed that Iraq needs firm leadership and close coordination between the Iraqi security forces and the coalition troops.
"The president didn't make any conditions, he said that we're going to support you and he said he knew that prime minister had to make tough decisions," Snow said. "On a number of occasions he referred to the importance of going after terrorists and militias."
Hagel said it is time to change course, but "our options are limited."
"We need to find a new strategy, a way out of Iraq, because the entire Middle East is more combustible than it's been probably since 1948, and more dangerous," Hagel said. "And we're in the middle of it."
Democrats have long urged a change in Iraq policy. Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the leading Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said there is "no military solution to this conflict" and the United States must pressure Iraqis to take over their country.
"If they're going to have a civil war, they're going to have to do it without us," Levin said on CNN. "This is long overdue. We've got to focus Iraqi leadership attention on this by telling them we need to begin a phased redeployment of American troops from Iraq within the next few months."