Mon, Nov 13, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Blair, Bush discuss Iraq policy

CHANGE OF HEART The Bush administration is ushering in a new strategy for the unpopular war in the wake of defeat in congressional elections


An Iraqi boy talks to a British soldier in Basra, 550km southeast of Baghdad, on Nov. 4. British Prime Minister Tony Blair and US President George W. Bush had a long telephone conversation on Friday to chart changes to the coalition's policy in Iraq.


British Prime Minister Tony Blair and beleaguered US President George W. Bush have had a long discussion on how to push forward change in the coalition's policy in Iraq.

In Friday's telephone conversation, Blair, who will give evidence to the Bush-appointed Iraq Study Group (ISG) tomorrow, insisted on the need to regionalize the peace effort and draw Iran and Syria -- both accused of supporting insurgents -- into any solution.

Blair sent his senior foreign policy adviser, Nigel Sheinwald, to Damascus last month to hold talks with President Bashar al-Assad. Britain has said Syria has a choice either to play a constructive role in the international community or to continue to support terrorism.

Blair will address the Iraq Study Group -- chaired by the Republican former secretary of state, James Baker -- the day after Bush does. The British moves have come as the US has plunged into a rapid overhaul of its strategy in Iraq, with Bush on Saturday praising his new defense chief as an "agent of change."

The speed of the changes now occurring in US policy on Iraq has stunned many observers as Washington's political classes react to last week's election victory by the Democrats.

In his weekly radio address, Bush hailed his new secretary of defense, former CIA chief Robert Gates, as an able manager who "will provide a fresh outlook on our strategy in Iraq and what we need to do to prevail. He has shown that he is an agent of change."

Bush's words will be taken as the strongest hint yet that major changes in Iraq policy are likely to come sooner rather than later.

The ISG is set to report its findings by the end of the year. The panel has been reported as believing that the long-standing Bush administration mantra of "staying the course" is untenable.

Some sort of timetabled military withdrawal, linked to political and security stability in Iraq, is now seen as more attractive.

Last week's elections showed that the US public has grown weary of the conflict. Ending the war as soon as possible has become an overriding political aim for Republicans with an eye on the White House race of 2008. The replacement of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld with Gates is seen as paving the way for wide-ranging change.

Gates served on the ISG before being chosen to replace Rumsfeld and is party to its new thinking.

In previous public speeches, he has revealed that he believes a strategy of phased troop withdrawals could see the US leave Iraq before the next presidential election.

While the ISG looks at new strategies, the Pentagon is also examining the situation in Iraq. A military commission headed by Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Peter Pace, is meant to be completed early next month.

"We have to give ourselves a good honest scrub about what is working and what is not working," Pace said on Saturday.

There is now little desire in any part of the US' body politic for keeping with its old Iraq strategy of battling the insurgency in order to bring stability to the country. Republicans are aware that their recent drubbing at the polls was largely fuelled by the anti-Iraq war sentiment.

Democrats have also now enthusiastically embraced the idea of policy change in Iraq and have called for a bipartisan summit on the issue.

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