WASHINGTON, (Reuters) – U.S. President George W. Bush said on Thursday a new strategy was required in Iraq but he would await further reviews beyond the scathing Iraq Study Group report before determining a new way forward. “I believe we need a new approach,” Bush said during a press conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, his closest ally on the Iraq war. “And that’s why I’ve tasked the Pentagon to analyze a way forward. That’s why Prime Minister Blair is here to talk about the way forward, so we can achieve the objective, which is an Iraq which can govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself and be an ally in the war on terror.”
The high-level panel report issued on Wednesday advised Bush to begin to withdraw U.S. combat forces from Iraq and to push the Iraqi government toward independence and launching a diplomatic push that would include Iran and Syria and a sustained U.S. commitment to Arab-Israeli peace.
While Bush welcomed the report as “very constructive,” he made clear he was waiting for separate Pentagon and State Department reviews before proceeding with a change in course. “We’ve got to get the right way forward, this is where Baker-Hamilton helps,” Bush said, referring to the co-chairmen of the bipartisan panel, former Secretary of State James Baker and former Rep. Lee Hamilton.
U.S. voters were widely seen as repudiating Bush’s approach in Iraq in Nov. 7 elections in which his Republican Party lost control of the U.S. Congress and Blair has been under fire at home for his staunch support of Washington. “I think the Baker-Hamilton report allows us to, as the situation’s evolved in Iraq, to evolve our strategy,” Blair said.
The meeting in Washington took place amid continuing violence in Iraq, described by Bush as “unsettling.” “It’s bad in Iraq, ” he acknowledged.
The U.S. military confirmed that at least 11 U.S. soldiers were killed this week, in one of the worst spates of violence suffered by U.S. forces. Scores of Iraqi civilians also die each week in sectarian fighting between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims.
A U.S. soldier was killed and three others were wounded in clashes in the restive city of Ramadi. Fourteen insurgents were killed. And U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Christopher Garver said five soldiers were killed in a roadside bomb blast in Kirkuk province on Wednesday.
The deaths brought to 30 the number of U.S. soldiers killed in December. “Make no mistake about it: I understand how tough it is,” Bush said.
The Sunni insurgency against the U.S. forces continues unabated. More than 2,900 U.S. soldiers have been killed since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. October, when 106 service members died, was the deadliest month for U.S. troops in nearly two years. Tens of thousands of Iraqis have died.
The Iraq Study Group called on the U.S. military to strengthen efforts to train Iraqi forces by boosting its forces embedded with Iraqi troops to 20,000 from about 4,000.
The recommendations, while much-anticipated in the United States, were received with indifference by most Iraqis, more preoccupied with the grim reality of surviving car bombs and kidnappings. “I don’t care about the report,” said Ahmed Rafii, a taxi driver from Falluja. “I didn’t follow it and didn’t hear about it. The Americans came for the oil and they are going to stay as long as the oil is there.”
The Iraqi government said proposals that Iraqis should take the security lead were similar to their own, but local officials in the oil-rich south said recommendations to strengthen central rule could harm Iraq’s fragile unity.
Defense expert Andrew Krepinevich, whose counter-insurgency theory formed the basis of the U.S. and Iraqi crackdown in Baghdad code-named Operation Together Forward, told Reuters accelerating training of Iraqi forces would have a human toll. “The idea … is a good one (but) this will likely lead to an increase in U.S. casualties,” he said.