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Bush to act on panel's call for changes in Iraq

A high-level panel weighing US options in Iraq reportedly proposed Wednesday that most combat troops leave by early 2008.

india Updated: Dec 07, 2006 08:15 IST

A high-level panel weighing US options in Iraq reportedly proposed Wednesday that most combat troops leave by early 2008 if the security situation permits and called for diplomacy with Iraq's neighbours, including Syria and Iran.

Bush views those two US foes as part of the problem in Iraq and has rejected high-level talks with them. But he pledged to consider the Iraq Study Group's report and take action, while making plain he would not follow all of its advice.

The report, eight months in the making and due to be officially unveiled later Wednesday, proposed no timetable for US retreat from Iraq and warned that a sudden troop withdrawal would worsen sectarian violence.

But it called for a strategic shift that would give US troops more of a backup and training role as Iraqi forces take over security tasks. The report said US combat troops "not necessary for force protection" could be withdrawn by the first quarter of 2008, media reports said.

"This report gives a very tough assessment of the situation in Iraq," Bush said as he received the report at the White House early Wednesday.

"It is a report that brings some really very interesting proposals. And we will take every proposal seriously and we will act in a timely fashion," he said.

James A. Baker, appearing with lawmakers from Bush's Republican Party and the Democratic Party that will take control of Congress next month, held out hope that the report can unite the nation behind a new approach in Iraq.

"We think it offers the basis for a common ground forward," he said.

Bush aides have rejected speculation that the report is the fig leaf for a retreat from Iraq, where months of gruesome sectarian killings and a fractious government have blighted US hopes for a stable democracy.

Bush will weigh the 10-member panel's ideas as part of a broader review of strategy in Iraq, which includes an assessment by US military commanders, the White House said.

Bush, while saying he is open to fresh ideas, has staunchly refused to set a timetable for a US pullout and has held tight to his goal of an Iraq that can "sustain, govern and defend itself."

Pressure to bring US troops home or at least move more of them out of harm's way has grown dramatically since Bush's centre-right Republican Party lost Nov 7 congressional elections to the centre-left Democrats, who campaigned for an exit strategy from Iraq.

Alternatives floated by Bush's critics include starting a US withdrawal next year, splitting up Iraq among its three main factions and launching a major diplomatic push to involve regional powers - including US foes such as Iran - in search for a solution.

Bush has given no sign of what new ideas he is considering, if any. But frank talk by his nominee to succeed defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who resigned last month, conveyed what Democrats welcomed as a new sense of realism about the situation in Iraq.

Defence secretary-nominee Robert Gates, at his confirmation hearing Tuesday in the Senate, said that the US is "not winning" in Iraq. He said he would explore a "wide range" of ideas to conclude the war and insisted that "all options are on the table," though he avoided specifics.

The panel, co-chaired by Democratic ex-congressman and foreign policy expert Lee Hamilton, was launched in March by lawmakers from both parties, partly reflecting Republican fears that the war in Iraq and Bush's low approval ratings could help the Democratic Party win the presidency in 2008.

Baker warned that there are no easy solutions.

"Expectations are totally out of control," he told the Houston Chronicle daily last week. "There is no magic formula for our difficulties in Iraq."

First Published: Dec 07, 2006 08:15 IST