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Bush to discuss new Iraq plan with Gates

WASHINGTON -- President Bush, saying he was still considering options for "a new way forward" in Iraq, delivered an uncharacteristically dour assessment Wednesday of the war there and called 2006 a "difficult year" in which extremists thwarted ef...

WASHINGTON -- President Bush, saying he was still considering options for "a new way forward" in Iraq, delivered an uncharacteristically dour assessment Wednesday of the war there and called 2006 a "difficult year" in which extremists thwarted efforts to establish security and stability in the country.

Appearing reflective in a year-end news conference, Bush said the optimism generated after Iraqis elected a new government last December had fallen away, as extremists undertook "a deliberate strategy to foment sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shia. And over the course of the year, they had success. Their success hurt our efforts to help the Iraqis rebuild their country."

Bush said he would not adjust his Iraq policies until talking with Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who was sworn in Monday and by Wednesday had landed in Baghdad to meet with U.S. commanders and others there. One option under consideration is a temporary increase in U.S. troop levels. Bush said such a surge was not certain, and that before he sends in additional troops, "there must be a specific mission that can be accomplished."

Gates, after meeting with top U.S. generals at Camp Victory in Baghdad, acknowledged concerns that rushing thousands more American troops to the battlefront could allow the Iraqis to slow their effort to take control of the country. He said no decisions have been made.

"It's clearly a consideration," Gates said of how an infusion of American troops might affect Iraqi leaders. "I think that the commanders out here have expressed a concern about that."

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Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq and one of several generals who met with Gates, said he supports boosting troop levels only when there is a specific purpose for their deployment. Other military leaders have expressed uncertainty over the purpose and results of injecting more troops.

"I'm not necessarily opposed to the idea, but what I want to see happen is when, if we do bring more American troops here, they help us progress to our strategic objectives," Casey told reporters during a news conference with Gates and other military leaders.

Gen. John Abizaid, top U.S. commander in the Middle East, sounded a more favorable tone. The military, he said, is "looking at every possible thing that might influence the situation to make Baghdad, in particular, more secure."

In Washington, Bush's comments did not satisfy senior Democratic leaders in Congress. In similar statements, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic Senate leader, and Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the incoming House speaker, said Bush did not understand the need for a more dramatic change in Iraq.

"The president seems lost within his own rhetoric," Reid said. "He is grasping for a victory his current policies have put out of reach and leaving our troops stuck policing a civil war." Reid, who has given qualified support to increasing troops in Iraq if it leads to Iraqis picking up security responsibilities, also said that Bush should follow the course that Democrats and the Iraq Study Group recommended for withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Sen. Hillary R. Clinton, D-N.Y., said on NBC's Today Show that her support for a temporary troop increase would depend on their mission.

"Everyone knows there is no military solution to the difficulties we face in Iraq," she said. "There has to be a broad-based, comprehensive approach that includes resolving some of the political issues, bringing the region together."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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