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Bush backs away from main ideas advocated by Iraq Study Group

WASHINGTON -- President Bush moved quickly to distance himself on Thursday from the central recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, even as the panel's co-chairmen opened an intense lobbying effort on Capitol Hill to press Bush to ado...

WASHINGTON -- President Bush moved quickly to distance himself on Thursday from the central recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, even as the panel's co-chairmen opened an intense lobbying effort on Capitol Hill to press Bush to adopt their report wholesale.

One day after the study group rattled Washington with its bleak assessment of conditions in Iraq, its Republican co-chairman, James Baker, said the White House must not treat the report "like a fruit salad and say, 'I like this but I don't like that.' " He called the study "a comprehensive strategy."

The Democratic co-chairman, Lee Hamilton, called on Congress to abandon its "extremely timid" approach to overseeing the war.

Baker and Hamilton told a Senate committee that the plan must be implemented as a package -- and urgently.

Asked when the U.S. position in Iraq would become "hopeless," Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana, replied: "We're perilously close to that point."

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But Bush, making his first extended comments on the study, seemed to retreat from two of its most fundamental recommendations: pulling back U.S. combat brigades from Iraq over the next 15 months, and engaging in direct talks with Iran and Syria. He said he needed to be "flexible and realistic" in making decisions about troop movements, and he set conditions for talks with Iran and Syria that neither country was likely to accept.

The president addressed reporters after meeting in the White House with his closest ally in the war, British Prime Minister Tony Blair. In light of the report's stark warning that the situation in Iraq was "grave and deteriorating," Bush came close to acknowledging mistakes. "You wanted frankness -- I thought we would succeed quicker than we did," the president said to a British reporter who asked for candor. "And I am disappointed by the pace of success."

But Bush, and to a lesser extent, Blair, continued to talk about the war in the kind of sweeping, ideological terms that the Iraq Study Group avoided in its report. While the commission settled on stability as a realistic American goal for Iraq, Bush cast the conflict as part of a broader struggle between good and evil, totalitarianism and democracy. If extremists emerge triumphant in the Middle East, Bush warned, "history will look back on our time with unforgiving clarity and demand to know what happened. How come free nations did not act to preserve the peace?"

While the president said he would give the report serious consideration, he said he did not intend to accept all 79 recommendations. "Congress isn't going to accept every recommendation in the report," Bush said, "and neither will the administration."

Three other reviews -- one by the Pentagon, one by the State Department and one by the National Security Council -- are under way, and Bush reiterated Thursday that while America needs "a new approach" in Iraq, he would make no decision until he received those reports.

The current White House plan is for Bush to receive them over the next week to 10 days, then make a decision about what he and the Baker-Hamilton commission are calling "the way forward" in Iraq. He intends to announce his plans in a speech to the American people before the end of the year, probably before Christmas, according to administration officials.

While the report has received widespread praise for its blunt assessment of the deteriorating situation in Iraq, skepticism about its recommendations wasn't limited to Washington.

Israel rejected the group's suggestion of a "renewed and sustained commitment" by the United States to broker peace between Israel and the Arabs. The report argues that U.S. goals in the region won't be met until Washington deals with that conflict.

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"The attempt to create a linkage between the Iraqi issue and the Mideast issue -- we have a different view," Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Thursday. "To the best of my knowledge, President Bush, throughout the recent years, also had a different view on this."

Olmert also rejected opening peace talks with Syria, as the group recommends.

In Baghdad, aides to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr said he would refuse to meet with U.S. officials. The Iraq Study Group recommended U.S. outreach to al-Sadr and other powerful Shiite Muslim leaders outside government. Al-Sadr leads the Mahdi Army, Iraq's dominant Shiite militia, which some charge runs death squads and is ethnically cleansing Baghdad neighborhoods.

The report provoked little reaction in Iraq. Neither Iraqi television pundits nor popular bloggers were dissecting its details. Politicians and citizens said they had little hope that it would stop the rise in sectarian attacks, and they concluded that it was a well-written, thinly veiled strategy for a U.S. exit from Iraq.

McClatchy Newspapers contributed to this report.

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