Bush signals possible shift in Iraq policy

Updated: 2006-11-12 07:34

WASHINGTON- US President George W. Bush suggested that a shift in his Iraq policy could be in the works, by praising his new defense secretary nominee as "an agent of change."

In his weekly radio address, Bush reaffirmed his determination to fight terrorism and said that Iraq remained "the central front in this war on terror."

But he made it clear, less than a week after the stunning Democratic victory in Tuesday's congressional elections, that he was open to ideas presented by Democrats as well as a group of independent experts working on new proposals for Iraq, with whom the president was scheduled to meet on Monday.

Bush also praised outgoing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who resigned the day after elections widely seen as a referendum on the Iraq war, while describing his expected replacement, former CIA chief Robert Gates, as someone who "has shown that he is an agent of change.

"As secretary of defense, he will provide a fresh outlook on our strategy in Iraq and what we need to do to prevail," Bush added.

On Friday, General Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said US military leaders are making their own reassessment of the course in Iraq, signaling major changes ahead with Rumsfeld's departure.

"We should not expect to go with a plan that's chipped in stone and stay with that plan no matter what," Pace said Friday.

Key questions facing any new regime at the Pentagon will be whether to send more US troops into the country to smother sectarian violence, and whether to move more aggressively against the Shiite militias at the source of much of the bloodshed.

"We need to give ourselves a good, honest scrub about what is working, what is not working, what are the impediments to progress and what should we change about the way we're doing it, to ensure that we get to the objective that we have set for ourselves," Pace said in an interview with CBS television.

Bush acknowledged that the situation in Iraq had significantly contributed to the defeat suffered by Republicans in the November 7 elections, when they lost control of both houses of Congress, effective in January, to opposition Democrats.

"The elections will bring changes to Washington," the president said. "But one thing has not changed: America faces brutal enemies who have attacked us before and want to attack us again.

"I have a message for these enemies: Do not confuse the workings of American democracy with a lack of American will. Our nation is committed to bringing you to justice, and we will prevail."

In a nod to Saturday's Veterans Day holiday, Bush paid tribute to members of America's military.

"Especially in a time of war," he said, "we see in our veterans an example of people who stepped forward to serve a cause larger than themselves.

"This weekend, I ask you to take a moment to thank our veterans for their service and express your appreciation for the sacrifices they have made to preserve our freedom and way of life."

In the Democrats' radio address, Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean likewise praised the men and women of the military and the great "sacrifices" they have made.

But he said the Democrats' agenda "includes a new direction in defending America at home and around the world.

"On Tuesday, Americans across the country made it clear that they want a new direction in Iraq and in the war on terror. Voters also made it clear that they want defense policies that are tough and smart," Dean said.

"Democrats are honored by the trust voters placed in us. And on their behalf, we fight for the new direction that Americans want and America needs," he said.

Two-thirds of Americans say Bush will not be able to accomplish much in his last two years in office, according to a poll released Saturday, after Democrats won control of Congress.

Bush's approval rating also slumped to a historic low of 31 percent in the November 9-10 Newsweek poll, four points lower than his previous assessment in the newsmagazine's November 2-3 survey.

Americans are also concerned about how Democrats will govern when the new Congress is seated in January, according to the poll.

Seventy-eight percent of those surveyed by Newsweek were concerned that the Democrat-led Congress might press too hastily to withdraw US troops from Iraq.

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