WASHINGTON – President Bush on Monday opened three days of intensive consultations on Iraq, saying the United States and countries across the Middle East have a vital stake in helping the fragile government in Baghdad succeed.
Bush went to the State Department to review diplomatic and political options — the latest in a series of consultations that dominate his agenda as he seeks a new course in Iraq.
"Like most Americans, this administration wants to suceed in Iraq," the president said after 90 minutes of discussions and a briefing from Baghdad. "We understand success in Iraq will help protect the United States in the long run.
"We also talked about the neighborhood, the countries that surround Iraq and the responsibilies that they have to help this young Iraqi democracy survive," Bush said. "We believe that most of the countries understand that a mainstream society, a society that is a functioning democracy is in their interest. And its up to us to help focus their attentions and focus their efforts on helping the Iraqis succeed."
Bush is under intense pressure to come up with a new approach in Iraq, particularly after the Republicans' loss of Congress was blamed on the president's handling of the war.
Bush's remarks echoed his previous statements and gave no indication of any change of strategy.
He defined succeess in Iraq as "a country that governs, defends itself, that is a free society, that serves as an ally in this war on terror."
"And the reason why that's vital," he said, "is because Iraq is a central component of defeating the extremists who want to establish safe haven in the Middle East, extremists who would use their safe haven from which to attack the United States ..."
Later, in the Oval Office, he was to seek advice from a handful of experts, including Stephen Biddle of the Council of Foreign Relations, Eliot Cohen of the School of Advanced International Studies and three retired Army generals: Wayne Downing, Jack Keane and Barry McCaffrey.
White House press secretary Tony Snow said Bush hoped to be able to announce his decisions by Christmas but that the timing could slip. "It's something that we would like to see, but I'm not going to promise it," Snow said.
Administration officials are weighing options, including a short-term buildup of troops and a revamped approach to dealing with Iraq's warring factions.
Whatever the choice, Bush is out to show he isn't acting alone. He is seeking advice at home and abroad — brought on by a humbling election in which voters handed control of Congress to Democrats and made clear their dissatisfaction with progress in Iraq.
On Tuesday, Bush will meet via video conference with senior military commanders and the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, and then host Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi in the Oval Office. On Wednesday, he meets with officials at the Pentagon.
Last week, Bush met with Shiite political leader Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, members of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, plus lawmakers from the armed services, intelligence and foreign relations committees.
"This is unusually intensive, as you would expect, given the situation we find ourselves in," White House counselor Dan Bartlett said Sunday.
"It's a very complex set of issues, ranging from military strategy and tactical decisions to economic and political and diplomatic matters," Bartlett said. "All these elements coming together will help him sort through all the different interests and recommendations, and then pull it together for a comprehensive decision and announcement."
The urgency and the pressure are rising.
Republican Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, the incoming No. 2 GOP leader, said Sunday: "The president this week is going to be meeting with any and everybody he can talk to."