WASHINGTON – President Bush on Saturday reviewed Iraq strategy with top war commanders and national security advisers, but indicated little inclination for major changes to an increasingly divisive policy.
"Our goal in Iraq is clear and unchanging: Our goal is victory," Bush said in his weekly radio address. "What is changing are the tactics we use to achieve that goal."
Under bipartisan, pre-election pressure for a significant re-examination of the president's war plan, the White House is walking a fine line.
It made sure to publicize the president's high-level meeting on the deteriorating conditions in Iraq — October already is the deadliest month this year for U.S. troops. At the same time, officials characterized the session as routine and part of a continuing discussion that seeks merely tactical adjustments to — not a radical overhaul of — war policy.
"I wouldn't read into this somehow that there is a full-scale push for a major re-evaluation," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said about the White House meeting. Rice, traveling from Asia to Moscow, stressed to reporters that Bush talks often with his generals in Iraq, and did so recently at Camp David.
The 90-minute session Saturday brought together Gen. John Abizaid, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East; Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld; Bush's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley; and other officials. Participating by videoconference were Vice President Dick Cheney; Gen. George Casey, who leads the U.S.-led Multinational Forces in Iraq; and the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad.
The meeting followed up on Bush's half-hour talk on Friday with Abizaid.
The White House did not allow reporters to cover either and provided few details after each, but did release an official photo of Saturday's meeting.
A White House spokeswoman, Nicole Guillemard, said it was the third in a series of consultations Bush has held recently with war commanders, and that similar sessions are planned in the weeks ahead.
"The participants focused on the nature of the enemy, the challenges in Iraq, how to better pursue our strategy, and the stakes of succeeding for the region and the security of the American people," she said.
Recent developments in Iraq and at home have put Bush in a delicate political position ahead of the Nov. 7 elections. With GOP control of Congress at stake, voters are expected to be influenced greatly by the nearly four-year-old war.
The discussion of new approaches comes as public pessimism about the war rises. Almost two-thirds in a Newsweek poll released Saturday said the U.S. is losing ground in its efforts to establish security and democracy in Iraq. An AP-Ipsos poll this month found that just over one-third of Americans surveyed say they approve of Bush's handling of Iraq overall.
Democrats are stepping up their criticism of what they call Bush's "stay the course" policy. Many contend the war was ill-advised from the start, is being mismanaged now and exacerbates the terrorism threat globally.
On Saturday, Democratic congressional candidate Diane Farrell from Connecticut said Bush should fire Rumsfeld and that Congress should set clear benchmarks for Iraqis that, when met, would allow U.S. troops to leave the country.
"We need a new direction in Iraq," said Farrell, chosen by the party to give its weekly radio address. "To be blunt, the president and the Republican Congress have been wrong on Iraq and wrong to keep their failed strategy."
A small but growing number of Republicans — even loyal conservatives who face little re-election challenge — is expressing a desire for significant change. Those voicing doubts include Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner of Virginia; Sens. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson of Texas; and several House Republicans.
Last week, the U.S. military spokesman in Iraq acknowledged a stepped-up operation to secure Baghdad was failing after two months and that it needed to be refocused.
Though Bush and his aides publicly voice the utmost confidence in Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, frustration is growing with his lack of progress in reining in militias. On Friday, gunmen loyal to an anti-American Shiite cleric briefly seized a major southern city, an embarrassment for the local Iraqi security forces.
Three Marines died in combat Saturday, making October the deadliest month for American forces in Iraq this year and putting it on course to be the deadliest in two years.
Bush has sought to highlight good news while showing he is aware of the problems. "The last few weeks have been rough for our troops in Iraq, and for the Iraqi people," he said on the radio.
The president argues that "stay the course" is not an accurate description of an Iraq strategy that he says remains nimble in the face of shifting circumstances.
"Our commanders on the ground are constantly adjusting their approach to stay ahead of the enemy, particularly in Baghdad," Bush said.
In other similar statements, the White House has appeared in recent days to be setting the stage for an announcement and trying to manage the expectations for what that could be.
An independent commission led by former secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana is not expected to make its recommendations for a new strategy until December or January. But Bush and his aides have rejected the most drastic ideas that some have floated, such as partitioning Iraq into semiautonomous Shiite, Sunni and Kurd regions or setting a timetable for a phased withdrawal of troops.
On Friday, Rumsfeld said U.S. officials, including Casey and Khalikzad, are working with the Iraqi government to develop projections as to when they think they can pass off various pieces of responsibility for both security and governing. He provided no detail about specific benchmarks and emphasized that whatever expectations are set for the Iraqi government would not be set in stone.
"The biggest mistake would be to not pass things over to the Iraqis, create a dependency on their part, instead of developing strength and capacity and competence," he said. "It's their country, they're going to have to govern it, they're going to have to provide security for it, and they're going to have to do it sooner rather than later."