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Shift coming in US policy on Iraq

'Stay the course' and 'cut and run' aren't options. Speaking to 'axis of evil' neighbors may be.

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When the midterm elections are over, the Bush administration can get down to making tough calls in Iraq policy.

With Republicans and Democrats alike calling for a new direction to American efforts in Iraq, the United States will proceed to new policies that will be neither a rabbit-out-of-the-hat redirection nor simply cosmetic tinkering, experts say. In other words, expect neither abrupt US withdrawal nor dogged insistence that current policies are working.

Among many options under consideration, these are the ones most likely to see the light of day, judging from lawmakers, experts, and steps the White House is already taking:

•A new diplomatic push to engage all of Iraq's neighbors – including Iran and Syria – to stabilize the country and help pull it back from the brink of full-blown civil war.

•More insistence that the Iraq government make the decisions needed to help quell sectarian violence – including such things as combatant amnesty and the sharing of oil revenue.

•Reduction of US troop numbers over the next year to a level sustainable among both the American and Iraqi publics.

The US elections may have held up decisionmaking until now, some experts say. But now, they add, changes are not only possible, but unavoidable because of such forces as deteriorating conditions in Iraq, unabated political pressure, and the much-anticipated report of the high-profile Iraq Study Group – co-chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker III and former Democratic congressional leader Lee Hamilton.

"Our elections have artificially polarized the debate and left us with a false choice between 'stay the course' and 'cut and run.' But there are a number of options between keeping 160,000 troops on the ground and just pulling out," says James Dobbins, a RAND Corp. national-security expert with conflict-resolution experience in the past three administrations.

"With the elections over, we [can] not only consider those options in between," he adds, "but no doubt [should] move forward on at least some of them."

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