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W.House won't accept all proposals from Baker group

Steve Holland
Reuters
Friday, December 8, 2006

The White House on Friday dismissed former Secretary of State James Baker's appeal that his Iraq recommendations be largely adopted as a whole and said President George W. Bush was considering various proposals for a change in course.

Democrats who will take control of the U.S. Congress in January piled pressure on Bush for a major change in course after meeting him at the White House along with Republicans now in their waning days in power.

"Someone has to get the message to this man," said Nevada Democratic Sen. Harry Reid, soon to be the Senate majority leader, who has praised the work of the Iraq Study Group which issued its report on Wednesday.

In testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday, Baker had urged Congress to accept most if not all of the report's 79 recommendations as part of a comprehensive strategy and said Bush should do the same.

"I hope we don't treat this as a fruit salad, and say, 'I like this but I don't like that,'" Baker had said.

But White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said the report by the group, led by Baker and former Democratic congressman Lee Hamilton, would be considered along with internal reviews being conducted by the Pentagon, the State Department and the National Security Council.

Bush's goal is to outline a shift in course in a speech to be delivered before the Christmas holiday. He has given a cool response to two key recommendations -- talks with Iran and Syria and pulling back U.S. combat forces by early 2008.

"I understand that Secretary Baker's comment yesterday about the fruit salad is descriptive, I think, of how they feel about it; however, I don't think the president considers it as any type of food," she said.

"I think that he is going to digest it, however, and he will take the time that he needs in order to figure out how he wants to move forward."

American support for Bush's handling of the war continued to decline. An AP-Ipsos poll taken earlier this week found that just 27 percent of Americans approved of Bush's handling of Iraq, down from his previous low of 31 percent in November.

Under pressure for a course correction in the unpopular war, Bush set up meetings for next week with senior Pentagon and State Department officials and outside experts on Iraq.

He talked about Iraq with leaders of the U.S. Congress, both Republicans who are still in charge and Democrats who have warned they will exert strong pressure on the president for a new strategy when they take over in January.

"The time for change is now and is apparent to the American people," said California Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who will take over in January as speaker of the House of Representatives, after meeting Bush at the White House.

Sen. Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, said Bush did not reject the Iraq Study Group report outright.

"But when he talked about his approach to Iraq, there was no indication of a change in basic strategy. He talked about changing some tactics," Durbin said.

Reid praised the work of the study commission, but said Bush made it clear that he is the one who calls the shots.

"As he said this morning, he is the commander in chief. He reminds us of that all the time. And we acknowledge that," Reid said.

Perino insisted Bush is keeping an "open mind" about recommendations from the bipartisan panel on ways to shift course in Iraq despite his cool response to key proposals.

Bush on Thursday rejected direct talks with Iran and Syria, a central proposal of the Iraq Study Group.

At a news conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, he also declined to endorse a proposal that most U.S. combat troops could be pulled out of Iraq by early 2008, although he called it an important goal if conditions on the ground warrant it.

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