Administration officials say their preliminary review of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group's recommendations has concluded that many of its key proposals are impractical or unrealistic, and a small group inside the National Security Council (NSC) is now racing to come up with alternatives to the panel's ideas.
In interviews over the last two days with officials from the White House, the State Department, the Pentagon and foreign diplomats, US President George W. Bush and his top aides were described as deeply reluctant to follow the core strategy advocated by the study group: to pressure Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki to rein in sectarian violence faced with reduced US military and economic support.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has cautiously embraced that approach, several officials said, but others -- including people in the NSC and the vice president's office -- argue that the risks are too high.
"The worry is that the more Maliki is seen as our puppet, because he is abiding by our timelines and deadlines, the internal political dynamics will become so fragile that the whole government would collapse," said one senior official participating in the internal review. "That would set us back a year."
A senior official said the administration was not near a "decision point" on how to go about influencing al-Maliki to move faster, and he said it was taking seriously some of the report's suggestions.
But in interviews, senior administration officials, who would not be quoted by name because Bush has made no final decisions about how to deal with the Iraq panel's recommendations, questioned the study group's assertions that Iran had an interest in helping to stabilize the situation in Iraq, or that it made sense to start negotiations with Iran without conditions.
And they took issue with the decision by former secretary of state James Baker and the nine other members of the commission to make no mention of promoting democracy as a US goal in the Middle East, and to drop any suggestion that "victory" was still possible in Iraq when they presented their findings to Bush and to the public on Wednesday.
"You saw that the president used the word `victory' again the next day," said one of Bush's aides. "Believe me, that was no accident."
The administration's inclination to dismiss so many of the major findings of the bipartisan group sets the stage for what could become a titanic struggle over Iraq policy. Just two months ago, administration officials were saying that they believed the findings by the panel headed by Baker and Lee Hamilton, a former congressman, would be all but written in stone -- and that Bush would have little choice but to carry out most of them.
But in recent weeks, the White House has sought to describe the panel's role as that of one advisory group among many.
Andrew Card, the president's chief of staff until last spring, said that whatever Bush did in Iraq would probably fall short of many of the commission's recommendations, and that he was likely to continue making decisions that he believed were right even if they were unpopular.
"The president by definition knows more than any of those people who are serving on these panels," Card said. "The president's obligations sometimes require him to be very lonely."
Bush has empowered the "Crouch Group," a small group of advisers being coordinated by Deputy National Security Adviser Jack Crouch to assemble alternative proposals from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the State Department, the Treasury Department and staff of the NSC.
The administration's strategy appears to be to back parts of the recommendations that are under way already, or that are considered minor modifications of those efforts, and pick away at those that the administration believes imply retreat or folly.
For example, the administration is embracing a recommendation that it put more energy into reviving Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
Rice is planning a trip to the region early next year, and the administration says it plans to build on a new initiative by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Similarly, officials have described the report's call for the creation of an "Iraq International Support Group" as an expansion of two forums that Rice has already met with -- an economic cooperation group called the "Compact for Iraq" and the "Gulf Plus Two" group, which includes the Gulf Cooperation Council plus Egypt and Jordan.
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