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The critical question: What will Bush do?

WASHINGTON - The question now is whether President Bush will listen.

The Iraq Study Group delivered an unmistakable message Wednesday: Change the course in Iraq.

Bush can be a stubborn man, proud of his reputation for decisiveness and commitment to what he sees as principle, but he's shifted gears before in response to political pressure, though never on an issue of such magnitude.

The release of the panel's 142-page report was the latest in a series of events that are testing the president's commitment to an increasingly unpopular war. His poll numbers remain dismal. Last month's elections rebuked his leadership as much as his party.

The ousters of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and U.N. Ambassador John Bolton underscored the ebbing power of the "neoconservatives" who backed the war in Iraq. Even incoming Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who was confirmed for his new job Wednesday, concedes that the United States isn't winning there.

Political isolation

The bipartisan group's report leaves Bush more politically isolated than ever.

"Now the president has the ball in his court," said incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. "And we're going to be watching very closely."

While the president reserved judgment on the report, it essentially repudiates his entire Middle East policy. It called for withdrawing nearly all U.S. combat troops by early 2008, precisely the kind of timetable that he's denounced repeatedly. It presses for direct U.S. talks with Syria and Iran. And it endorses much more U.S. pressure on Israel to reach a peace with Palestinians.

White House critics said the report marked a fundamental shift in the national debate over Iraq. It "moved the center of debate from whether we should leave to when and how," said Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., the next chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

"We may have turned the corner," agreed Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., an advocate for withdrawing U.S. troops. "If the president recognizes the urgent need for a new direction in Iraq, we'll see it happen soon."

Precedent

Bush has reversed course before. He embraced creating the Homeland Security Department only after opposing it initially. He supported making airport security a federal government function after first saying it would be left to private companies. He opposed forming the independent Sept. 11 commission, but later accepted it.

Perhaps most telling, he reluctantly withdrew his nomination of his longtime loyalist Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court in the face of strong opposition.

But those were minor skirmishes compared with the stakes in Iraq. Bush repeatedly has described the conflict as the central front in the war on terrorism. It's the centerpiece of his presidency; history will measure his legacy by what happens there.

Bush could reverse course, but to date he's opposed some of the commission's ideas. He's said he won't talk to Syria and Iran about stabilizing Iraq.

He opposes anything resembling a timetable for U.S. withdrawal. He's rejected firm milestones for progress by the Iraqi government. And he's said repeatedly that he intends to stay in Iraq as long as it takes to achieve his goals. He couldn't have been more emphatic than he was only last week, when he said:

"I know there's a lot of speculation that these reports in Washington mean there's going to be some kind of graceful exit out of Iraq. We're going to stay in Iraq to get the job done, so long as the (Iraqi) government wants us there," he said at a news conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. "This business about a graceful exit just simply has no realism to it at all."

Bush made it clear even as he accepted the commission's recommendations that he doesn't feel bound by them.

"We probably won't agree with every proposal," he told commission members at a White House meeting.

Room for agreement

Still, some of the commission's ideas fit with Bush's approach. While the panel concluded that "current U.S. policy is not working," it endorsed the president's goal of an Iraq that can "govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself."

The panel also supported the strategy of trying to shift responsibility from American troops to Iraqi security forces; it just wants the process accelerated. The report also suggests that the Pentagon consider a short-term increase in troop strength to help Iraqis take over - before starting to withdraw next year.

Bush said he'd consider all of the recommendations and would work with Congress toward a consensus strategy. But he doesn't plan to offer a new way forward until he receives Iraq policy reviews from the State Department, the Pentagon and the National Security Council.

White House spokesman Tony Snow said the administration's assessments of all of the reviews might slip into the new year. In any case, the next move is up to Bush.

"Ultimately, it's the president's responsibility," Durbin said. "The buck truly stops in the Oval Office."

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