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Iraq Transition

White House rebuffs call for troop withdrawal in Iraq

Story Highlights

• President Bush meets Monday with Iraq Study Group
• Democrats, allies call for talks on Iraq to include Iran, Syria, other nations in region
• Democrats call for U.S. troop withdrawals to begin in four to six months
• White House says fixed timetable for withdrawal could be "disaster"
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- With a top Democrat calling for a "phased redeployment" of U.S. troops in Iraq, President Bush met Monday with a commission studying the war and said conditions in Iraq, not politics, would dictate troop levels there.

Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, who is expected to chair the Armed Services Committee in January when Democrats take control of Congress, said redeploying troops would prompt the Iraqis to take more expeditious steps to ending the war.

"We cannot save the Iraqis from themselves," Levin said. "We've been told repeatedly by our top uniformed military leaders that there is no purely military solution in Iraq; there is only a political solution in Iraq." (Watch how Levin suggests proving U.S. troops will not be in Iraq forever -- 1:27 Video)

The Michigan senator said only Iraqis could determine the course for their country: "They and they alone are going to decide whether they're going to have a nation or whether they're going to have an all-out civil war."

White House press secretary Tony Snow conceded Monday that conditions in Iraq are "not getting better fast enough," but he insisted "the strategy for victory is working."

Snow further disregarded Levin's call for troops to be withdrawn in months, saying the proposal "doesn't have any meat and bones to it."

"When somebody comes back and has benchmarks and that sort of thing, then we'll be happy to talk," Snow said. "But the ultimate goal still has to be an Iraq that can sustain, govern and defend itself. And when conditions permit, that's when you start talking about troop withdrawals."

Group to recommend course

The president said Monday he is looking forward to "interesting ideas" from the Iraq Study Group.

The bipartisan panel is led by James Baker, who served as secretary of state under Bush's father, and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana, who has chaired both the House intelligence committee and the 9/11 commission. (Watch what Iraq Study Group has been working on -- 2:05)

Until last week, Robert Gates, Bush's choice to replace Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, was a member of the study group. Gates was replaced on the panel by Lawrence Eagleburger, who succeeded Baker as secretary of state in the first Bush administration. (Who's who in the group)

The panel is expected to deliver recommendations for the future of the war by year's end. The commission did not give Bush or his top aides a preview of their coming recommendations, Snow said.

Bush said he had "a really good discussion" with the panel, but did not know what the group would conclude. Regardless, he said, the U.S. goal in Iraq remains "success -- a government which can sustain, govern and defend itself and will serve as an ally in this war on terror."

"I believe it is very important, though, for people making suggestions to recognize that the best military options depend upon the conditions on the ground," he said.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also met with the group Monday and delayed her planned trip to the Asia-Pacific economic summit in Vietnam for a day to hold additional meetings on Iraq, said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.

Like Bush, Levin said he is awaiting the commission's report before making any concrete decisions.

"That is going to have an impact on whatever action might be possible in this Congress and in the next Congress," Levin said, but he noted his party already has ideas about troop levels.

"Most Democrats share the view that we should pressure the White House to commence the phased redeployment of U.S. troops from Iraq in four to six months -- to begin that phased redeployment, and thereby to make it clear to the Iraqis that our presence is not open-ended and that they must take and make the necessary political compromises to preserve Iraq as a nation," Levin said.

The first priority is to "change the course in Iraq," the senator said. "That's the message that came through so clearly and powerfully last Tuesday from the American people."

Polls indicate that widespread discontent with the war, which has claimed more than 2,800 American lives, helped drive voters toward Democrats in last week's midterm elections.

White House aides have signaled an openness to changes in Iraq, but they have repeatedly rejected Democratic proposals to redeploy U.S. troops within months.

Calls to include Iran, Syria in talks

Speaking on Sunday talk shows, two top Democrats called for an international conference composed of representatives from the countries in the region with a stake in the outcome -- including Iran, Syria and Turkey -- to hash out details of a solution.

The concept was endorsed Monday by the prime ministers of Britain and Australia, both of which have troops in Iraq as part of the U.S.-led coalition, according to The Associated Press.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair called on Iran and Syria to help end the war in Iraq, which he said was fueling global terrorism.

"A major part of the answer to Iraq lies not in Iraq itself but outside it -- in the whole of the region where the same forces are at work; where the roots of this global terrorism are to be found; where the extremism flourishes with a propaganda that may be, indeed is, totally false but is nonetheless attractive to much of the Arab street," he said. (Watch how Blair wants a policy that identifies Iraq's disrupters and "pins them back" -- 3:14 Video)

On Sunday, Iranian government spokesman Gholam Hossein Elham said if the United States sought Iranian help with the war in Iraq, "everything would be solved and no problems would remain."

Imad Moustapha, Syria's ambassador to Washington, said his country is willing to play a "constructive role" in Iraq, but "we believe it's time for the United States to show humility and admit, even to itself, its policies in Iraq have dramatically failed."

Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer of New York offered support for a proposal put forward in June by Levin and Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island to begin a phased withdrawal within six months.

"We need to redeploy," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said Sunday on CBS's "Face the Nation," adding that decisions should be made by officers on the ground in Iraq. "I think it should start within the next few months."

White House chief of staff Josh Bolten rejected the notion of a "fixed timetable."

"That could be a true disaster for the Iraqi people," he said on ABC's "This Week."

One prominent Republican said Sunday the only way to improve the situation in Iraq was not by decreasing the number of troops, but by increasing the number.

"I believe that a withdrawal, or a date for withdrawal, will lead to chaos in the region," said Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who is considering a run to be his party's presidential candidate in 2008.

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The Iraq Study Group is led by former Secretary of State James Baker, left, and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, meeting reporters in September.



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