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Bush aides look for alternatives on Iraq

Bush administration officials say their preliminary review of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group's recommendations has concluded many of its key proposals are impractical or unrealistic, and a small group inside the National Security Council is now working to come up with alternatives to the panel's ideas.

In New York Times' interviews with foreign diplomats and officials from the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon, President Bush and his top aides were described as reluctant to follow the core strategy advocated by the study group: to pressure Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to rein in sectarian violence or face reduced U.S. military and economic support.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has cautiously accepted that approach, several officials said, but others - including people in the National Security Council and the vice president's office - argue that the risks are too high, officials said.

A senior official said the administration was not near a decision on how to go about influencing Maliki to move faster, and he said it was taking seriously some of the report's suggestions.

But in interviews, senior administration officials, who would not be quoted by name because Bush has made no final decisions about how to deal with the Iraq panel's recommendations, questioned the study group's assertions that Iran had an interest in helping to stabilize the situation in Iraq, or that it made sense to start negotiations with Iran without conditions.

And they took issue with the decision by former Secretary of State James Baker and the nine other members of the commission to make no mention of promoting democracy as an American goal in the Middle East, and to drop any suggestion that "victory" was still possible in Iraq when they presented their findings to Bush and to the public on Wednesday.

The administration's inclination to dismiss some of the major findings of the bipartisan group sets the stage for what could become a major struggle over Iraq policy.

Andrew Card, the president's chief of staff until last spring, said that whatever Bush did in Iraq would probably fall short of many of the commission's recommendations, and that Bush was likely to continue making decisions that he believed were right even if they were unpopular. Referring to Bush's secret intelligence briefings, Card said: "The president by definition knows more than any of those people who are serving on these panels."

"The president's obligations sometimes require him to be very lonely," he said.

Bush has empowered the "Crouch Group," a small group of advisers being coordinated by Jack Crouch, the deputy national security adviser, to assemble alternative proposals from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the State Department, the Treasury Department and the staff of the National Security Council.

The report's authors say their strategy will work only if taken largely as a whole; Baker warned against treating it like a "fruit salad," picking the juiciest pieces.

Tony Snow, the White House spokesman, said that despite Baker's public suggestion that the administration should follow its recommendations fully, "members of the Baker-Hamilton commission made it clear that they don't expect everybody to agree with each and every jot and tittle."