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US leaders rethinking Iraq tactics

Some have indicated flexibility on troop levels, but stop short of any major changes, experts say.

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The Iraq war can still be won.

That may be the basic message that US officials have been trying hard to convey to an uneasy American public this week.

From President Bush on down, an unusual array of administration and military leaders have stepped up to podiums in recent days and talked about the precepts of the US approach to Iraq. Among other things, they've indicated flexibility on such things as troop levels, and said they don't foresee any US withdrawals for at least a year to 18 months.

But nothing they've said indicates major changes in US strategy, say some experts. And even top generals say that Iraq's ultimate outcome won't fully depend on military power.

There can't be any long-term security in Iraq "without the political decisions and accommodations that must be made in that country," said Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in a press briefing on Monday.

This week's parade of press appearances has included an unusual joint briefing in Baghdad by US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and Gen. George Casey, the top military commander in the region. General Pace followed with his own media conference at the Pentagon in Washington. On Wednesday, President Bush himself took questions at the White House.

Mr. Bush acknowledged that the spike of violence in Iraq has been worrisome. "The events of the past month have been a serious concern to me and a serious concern to the American people," he said.

Bush said that he would send more US troops if General Casey requested them. But he added that it would be dangerous to set a fixed timetable for the eventual withdrawal of American forces.

The US will set benchmarks for the current Iraqi government on such critical tasks as cracking down on private militias. But Bush added that Washington won't put more pressure on the Iraqi government than it can bear.

The administration will carefully consider any proposal that might help achieve victory. But "there is tough fighting ahead," said Bush. "The road to victory will not be easy. We should not expect a simple solution."

Though mid-term elections are now less than two weeks away, the administration denied that it was engaging in a concentrated media campaign on the Iraq war that involved American military commanders.

That said, the overall message of the appearances might best be summed, not as "changes will be made", but as "changes might be made, at some time in the future," according to some experts in the US.

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