WASHINGTON (AP) – President Bush on Wednesday said the enemy in Iraq is “far from being defeated,” but he vowed not to be rushed into adjusting his strategy and gave little indication that he intends to veer sharply from the direction his war policies have taken.

“We’re not going to give up. The stakes are too high and the consequences too grave,” Bush said after meeting at the Pentagon with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Rumsfeld’s designated successor, Robert Gates.

There are competing schools of thought inside the military and the administration on whether a short-term increase in U.S. troop strength in Iraq – possibly in the range of 20,000 – would be enough to quell the sectarian warfare in Baghdad.

After a third straight day of soliciting war advice from top military and diplomatic officials, Bush gave no clue as to whether he will include that in his forthcoming plan. Some generals believe it would be too little, too late, in a war that already has claimed more than 2,900 U.S. lives.

Bush said he was considering a wide range of options he has heard during a week of consultations, while rejecting ideas “that would lead to defeat.” He said the rejected ideas included “leaving before the job is done, ideas such as not helping this (Iraqi) government” to function and gain Iraqis’ confidence.

“But one thing people have got to understand is we’ll be headed toward achieving our objectives,” he said. “And I repeat: If we lose our nerve, if we’re not steadfast in our determination to help the Iraqi government succeed, we will be handing Iraq over to an enemy that would do us harm.”

Bush’s very public effort to recalibrate the war effort comes with growing public pressure generated by the November elections that put Democrats in control of Congress and led to Rumsfeld’s ouster.

The president said he would present soon a “new way forward” in Iraq, while continuing to support the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose ability to forge a viable governing coalition is questioned privately by some administration officials. He cited “horrific” violence in Iraq carried out by a ruthless enemy bent on toppling “this young democracy.”

None of his comments sounded like a prelude to withdrawing substantial number of U.S. troops over the coming year, as was recommended by the Iraqi Study Group, a bipartisan commission that studied war options since March.

A number of administration officials have suggested privately that while Bush has considered the possibility of a short-term troop increase, there is no consensus from the military on the wisdom of surging a large number of additional troops. In fact there is little sign that senior military leaders have shifted from their view that adding troops would undercut the incentive for Iraqis to take more responsibility for their own security.

Just last month, the top U.S. commander for U.S. forces in the Middle East, Gen. John Abizaid, told Congress that while a troop increase of 20,000 could have a short-term positive effect, it could not be sustained because the Army and the Marine Corps simply are stretched too thin to maintain a bigger force there.

A parallel possibility under discussion is increasing the number of U.S. troops who are placed inside Iraqi army and police units as advisers, providing a kind of on-the-job training that the senior military spokesman in Baghdad, Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, told reporters Wednesday is already paying notable dividends.

The military also has pressed the case that any adjustments in troop levels would be fruitless without accompanying improvements on the political and economic fronts, to reconcile the rival sectarian factions and to put young people to work.

Internally, the Army has been trying to determine how many additional troops could be deployed in Iraq at one time and for how long. So far, according to Army officials familiar with the deliberations, the consensus is that only 10,000 to 15,000 troops – or up to five brigades – could be added temporarily to the force.

Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff, is arguing that if the U.S. is going to maintain the current troop levels on the warfront, either the size of the active-duty Army must be increased or the Army must be given greater access to National Guard and Reserve soldiers, two defense officials said Wednesday.

Bush has met in recent days with Iraq’s Sunni vice president, Tariq al-Hashemi, and with the leader of the largest Shiite bloc in Iraq’s parliament, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim. Those discussions across Iraq’s ethnic and religious lines come as major partners in the country’s governing coalition are in behind-the-scenes talks to form a new parliamentary bloc and to sideline the supporters of the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Al-Sadr is a vehement opponent of the U.S. military presence and the main patron of al-Maliki. There is discontent in Iraq and within the Bush administration over al-Maliki’s failure to rein in Shiite militias and quell raging violence.

Bush met for about 90 minutes inside the Joint Chiefs’ eavesdrop-proof chamber, known as “the Tank.” Speaking to reporters afterward he declined to reveal what advice he had received, but he stressed that he wanted U.S. troops to know that while the war strategy is being reviewed, there is no intent to retreat.

“Our troops deserve the solid commitment of the commander in chief and our political leaders and the American people,” Bush said. “You have my unshakable commitment in this important fight to help secure the peace for the long term.”

The White House had initially suggested that Bush would deliver his speech on a new Iraq strategy before Christmas, but he has decided to delay it until early next year.

“I really do want the new secretary of defense to have time to get to know people and hear people and be a part of this deliberation,” Bush said. Gates, a former CIA director, will be sworn in on Monday.

Barry McCaffrey, who was one of three retired Army generals who met with Bush at the White House on Monday, said in a telephone interview that while he does not know how Bush will alter his military strategy, he worries that the president may opt to send tens of thousands more troops to reinforce Baghdad.

“All of us told the president, ‘Your Army is in disastrous shape, its equipment is broken, it’s not prepared to fight another enemy,” McCaffrey said. He recommends providing vastly more armored vehicles, helicopters and other equipment to the Iraqi army, while maintaining U.S. troops strength for the time being.



Associated Press writers Lolita C. Baldor, Anne Gearan and Anne Plummer Flaherty contributed to this report.

AP-ES-12-13-06 2141EST


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