Bush Iraq Course May Diverge from Study Group

With sources close to President Bush's Iraq planning saying today that it is likely the president will support a surge of U.S. troops in Iraq, the latest reporting suggests he is leaning away from many of the suggestions of the Iraq Study Group.

Bush's listening tour on what to do in Iraq already appears to mark a dramatic change from the small group of tightly knit advisors administration officials say were involved in the planning of the war in Iraq.

In recent days, Bush has met with the Iraq Study Group, headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton; Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki; Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi; retired generals and academics; and his own advisors at the Pentagon and State Department.

"I am listening to a lot of advice to develop a strategy," Bush said this week.

Before the war, Paul Wolfowitz, then Deputy Defense Secretary, first proposed invading Iraq in an emergency cabinet meeting at Camp David less than a week after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Aides say the circle remained close thereafter.

"The president's early advisors on Iraq was essentially a circle of like-minded ideologues," said Loren Thompson, a military analyst at the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va., think tank. "Now it's a more collegial environment, with a lot more participants. The question is: Is he sincerely listening, or is this just for appearances?"

Administration officials say the president is giving serious consideration to all options, including those suggested by the Iraq Study Group and other outside advisors. But critics suggest the president is reaching out now as a result of his failure to seek broader advice during war planning. Some question whether Bush will take the outside advice as seriously as the advice from the aides whose recommendations have guided his thinking on the war to date.

"The truth of the matter is that after all the setbacks in Iraq, Mr. Bush has not abandoned his original goals or his original convictions," Thompson said.

Among the ideas he has rejected are the Iraq Study Group's suggestion to hold direct talks with Iran and Syria. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said this week that she does not want to reward Syria's domination over Lebanon or Iran's nuclear program.

The administration reportedly is still debating more personnel moves. Robert Gates officially replaced Donald Rumsfeld as defense secretary on Friday, and Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno is replacing Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli as the No. 2 commander in Iraq.

But administration and defense officials say the president has also been advised privately to replace his top military team to bring in fresh thinkers who are not allied to past decisions. Among those officials are Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Gen. George Casey, the top commander in Iraq; and his boss, Gen. John Abizaid, head of the U.S. Central Command.

Among those who suggested a surge in troops in Iraq, which military sources said runs against the advice given by Casey and Abizaid, is ABC consultant Gen. Jack Keane, the former Army vice chief of staff. Keane was among the retired generals the president consulted in recent weeks. Among other things, Keane warned the president that time is running out.

"Time is now the issue," Keane said in an interview. "Now we have a crisis where this government runs the risk of being fractured in the next six to eight months, and, literally, a civil war taking place in that country, and then probably a failed state."

Administration officials say a plan on Iraq is due out in early January.