Bush calls summit amid Pentagon exit reports

US President George W.Bush met top military commanders yesterday to consider possible changes to the administration’s Iraq strategy, amid reports the Pentagon is drawing up an exit plan and has held secret talks with the insurgents.

The Pentagon is developing a plan that would set target dates for handing control to the Iraqis. US troops would pull back to their bases, leaving military advisers “embedded” with Iraqi security forces.

Sources suggest troops would be concentrated in the most violent areas of Iraq, such as Baghdad. They could be reinforced with soldiers from pacified regions.

US officials also held talks in Amman, Jordan, last week with insurgent leaders, including the Islamic Army in Iraq, one of the main Sunni militias.

The talks were described as “feeler” discussions. The US officials explored ways of persuading the Sunni groups to stop attacks on coalition forces and to end a cycle of increasingly bloody sectarian clashes with the majority Shia groups.

The exit strategy bears a striking resemblance to options favoured by the Iraq Study Group, co-chaired by former US secretary of state James Baker, due to publish its recommendations in months. They are expected to include alternatives to the “stay the course” strategy.

Until now, the Bush administration has avoided using threats of deadlines for progress in Iraq, saying that conditions on the ground would determine how quickly Iraq took on greater responsibility for governing the country and how soon US troops could withdraw.

There is growing consensus in Washington and London that an urgent change of direction is needed after the failure to curb violence in Baghdad. At least 30 people died at the weekend in a mortar attack on a market south of the capital.

As the Howard Government awaits the findings of the Baker report and any shift in policy from the US Government, Opposition foreign affairs spokesman Kevin Rudd predicted the Government would be forced to offer a policy rethink.

“When it comes to Mr Howard’s alternative, he can’t simply sit back, as he’s done now comfortably from his armchair at Kirribilli, and say, ‘We’ll stay the course’. That’s a slogan, not a strategy,” he told the ABC.

The Labor Party has proposed to offer “a different form of security policy assistance”. This would include training for border security police in Jordan, funding an oncology hospital in Baghdad to win “hearts and minds” and other economic and reconstruction assistance.

Mr Rudd conceded the US and Britain ought not pull out until a compact between warring Sunni and Shia groups could be reached. However, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said yesterday that Mr Rudd was dodging questions relating to Labor’s policy on Iraq.

“Mr Rudd’s repeated refusal to answer questions about the consequences of Labor’s cut-and-run policy on Iraq exposes the shallow opportunism of his approach to one of the great global challenges of the day,” Mr Downer said. “Mr Rudd is seldom lost for words. But on these questions, vital to global security and stability, he is utterly bereft of answers.”

Reports said yesterday that the Pentagon blueprint would be presented to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki before the end of the year. Although the plan would not threaten Mr Maliki with a withdrawal of US troops, several officials said Washington would consider changes in military strategy and other penalties if Iraq baulked at adopting it or failed to meet critical benchmarks within it.

Under pressure over spiralling violence in Iraq, Mr Bush said the talks involved changing tactics to combat the unrest, but not the overall military strategy.

“Our goal in Iraq is clear and unchanging: our goal is victory,” he said in his weekly radio address. “What is changing are the tactics we use to achieve that goal.

“There is one thing we will not do. We will not pull our troops off the battlefield before the mission is complete.

“We will continue to be flexible and make every necessary change to prevail in this struggle.”

Vice-President Dick Cheney, in a transcript of a Time magazine interview released by the White House, denied the changing tactics included looking for a way out. “We’re not looking for an exit strategy; we’re looking for victory. Our strategy hasn’t changed,” he said.

“And victory will be the day when the Iraqis solve their political problems and are up and running with respect to their own government, and when they’re able to provide for their own security.”

Mr Bush held talks with the top commander in the Middle East, General John Abizaid; US commander in Iraq General George Casey; Mr Cheney; Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld; and other top national security advisers.