by Tabassum Zakaria, Reuters
President Bush said on Thursday he was making "good progress" in coming up with a fresh strategy on Iraq but needed more advice before announcing his plan next month.
Bush gathered top advisers -- Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and national security adviser Stephen Hadley -- at his ranch in Texas to discuss options.
"I'm making good progress toward coming up with a plan that we think will help us achieve our objective," Bush said afterward. "The key to success in Iraq is to have a government that's willing to deal with the elements there that are trying to prevent this young democracy from succeeding."
As criticism mounts over his handling of the war, among the options Bush has been considering is a short-term "surge" in U.S. forces to help contain rampant violence. There are now 134,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.
Bush did not reveal specific options that were discussed, but a senior administration official said troop levels would naturally be part of any talks about security. Gates and Pace reported on their findings from a trip last week to Iraq.
"I think he's driving toward conclusions, driving toward a final decision, making it in the near future," the official said on condition of anonymity. Bush was expected to make an announcement in the "first part of January," he said.
The New York Times reported on its Web site on Thursday that the Bush administration was considering increasing troop levels in Iraq by 17,000 to 20,000, with most of the added forces likely to be deployed in and around Baghdad.
Quoting Pentagon officials, the newspaper said the option was among those discussed at the Crawford meeting and had emerged as a likely course as Bush considered a strategy shift.
"I've got more consultation to do until I talk to the country about the plan," Bush said.
The president said he would continue discussions with the Iraqi government and reach out to members of Congress, where control shifts to Democrats in January.
Democrats say November elections that gave them control of Congress from Bush's Republican Party reflected public discontent with the Iraq war and a desire for change.
Bush, who prides himself on sticking to decisions, has shown little appetite for a major change in course. He brushed aside a proposal from a bipartisan panel to ask U.S. foes Iran and Syria for help in stabilizing Iraq.
Sen. Joseph Biden, the Delaware Democrat who will be the next chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and other Democrats have expressed opposition to a troop increase.
The White House has suggested critics should hold their fire until they hear Bush's recommendations.
About two dozen protesters along the road to Bush's ranch shouted: "War criminal" and waved signs like "War - What Is It Good For," and "Bush Lied, Thousands Died."
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