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Bush meets panel on course of Iraq war

WASHINGTON — President Bush on Monday praised a bipartisan commission on Iraq for asking him good questions but said ‘‘I’m not going to prejudge’’ the report the panel soon will issue. He pledged to search with victorious Democrats in Congress for a consensus on how best to proceed.
    Bush said the goal in Iraq remains ‘‘a government that can sustain, govern and defend itself and serve as an ally in this war on terror.’’ He also said that ‘‘I’m not sure what the report is going to say’’ but said he looked forward to seeing it.
    Bush talked in the Oval Office with members of the Iraq Study Group, headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Democratic congressman Lee Hamilton.
    ‘‘I was impressed by the questions they asked. They want us to succeed in Iraq, just like I want us to succeed. So we had a really good discussion,’’ Bush told reporters as he posed for pictures with visiting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in the Oval Office.
    Speaking of congressional Democrats who will soon govern Congress, Bush said, ‘‘What’s interesting is they’re beginning to understand that, with victory comes responsibility and I’m looking forward to working with the Democrats to achieve common objectives.’’
    It was revealed that in addition to the work of the Baker commission, Gen. Pete Pace, chairman of the military Joint Chiefs of Staff, is leading a Pentagon inquiry into the situation in Iraq.
    Bush’s spokesman described the meeting as a ‘‘general conversation about the situation there,’’ rather than a preview of what the group will recommend.
    ‘‘This was not proposal-shopping by the Iraq Study Group,’’ White House press secretary Tony Snow told reporters.
    The members asked questions of Bush, and he of them, Snow said, ‘‘but there was care taken not to sort of try to prejudge, or also to get a jump on what they are going to do.’’
    On Monday, the Democrat in line to become chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee accused the administration of ignoring the reality that ‘‘we’re getting deeper and deeper into a hole’’ in Iraq.
    Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan said the study group’s report ‘‘is going to have an impact on whatever action might be possible in this Congress and in the next Congress.’’
    The study group was spending the day at the White House speaking with members of Bush’s national security team, including Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, National Intelligence Director John Negroponte, CIA Director Michael Hayden, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad and Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq.
    Cheney, Hadley and chief of staff Josh Bolten took part in the meeting with Bush, which ran more than an hour.
    Even before it is finished, the study group’s report is seen by many as having huge stakes. It could give the Democratic and Republican parties a chance at consensus — or at least a tenable framework for agreement — after an election that gave Democrats congressional control and reshaped Bush’s final two years in office.
    Meanwhile, Gen. John Abizaid, head of the U.S. Central Command, met Monday with the Iraqi prime minister to ‘‘reaffirm President Bush’s commitment’’ to success in Iraq, the government said.
    Baker has indicated the recommendations, to be issued before the end of the year, will fall somewhere between the troop withdrawal strategy that Republicans like to say Democrats favor and the stay the course policy until recently used by Bush and widely ridiculed by Democrats.
    On Sunday, Bush’s advisers adopted a new tone, days after a dissatisfied public handed the White House a divided government.
    ‘‘We clearly need a fresh approach,’’ said Bolten, making the rounds of morning talk shows.
    Levin and Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, the incoming chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, predicted that many Republicans would support a resolution on a phased troop reduction now that the election is over.
    Yet the Senate’s top Democrat, Harry Reid of Nevada, did not seem to go as far. He said he thought the withdrawal of U.S. troops should begin within a few months, but when asked if he would insist on a specific date, he said, ‘‘Absolutely not.’’
    The administration will not support a timetable for drawing down troops, Bolten said.

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