Ability of New Iraqi Leaders Doubted

By Michael Abramowitz and Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, October 13, 2006

A co-chairman of the blue-ribbon panel reviewing U.S. policy in Iraq raised concern last night about the ability of the Iraqi government to address the country's problems, as more indications emerged that the group is considering recommendations that would break sharply with Bush administration policies.

A group of experts assisting the commission has prepared two option papers for the panel, according to sources with knowledge of the group's work. One paper calls for a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq; the other calls for more focus on security in Baghdad and for working toward political accommodation with insurgents, not democracy, the sources said. Details of the papers were first reported yesterday by the New York Sun.

One source said the documents represent the two main ideas before the commission. Another said they are among several working papers prepared for the panel and cautioned that commission members may well disagree during future deliberations.

Appearing last night on PBS's "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer," the panel's co-chairmen -- former congressman Lee H. Hamilton (Ind.), a Democrat, and former secretary of state James A. Baker III, a Republican -- emphasized that they will make no recommendations until after the Nov. 7 midterm elections. That is an effort, they said, to depoliticize their efforts.

"Nothing is ruled out. Nothing is ruled in," Baker said. Hamilton added: "Any report in the press which says that we have agreed upon any recommendation is flat-out wrong."

Still, Hamilton said he is concerned about the ability of the new Iraqi government, headed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, to provide basic services and security.

"I still have real questions in my mind as to the capacity, the will of the Iraqi government to move," said Hamilton, who recently visited Baghdad with members of the panel. "There are some encouraging signs. Their rhetoric has been pretty good, but the follow-through with action has not measured up to our hopes."

Baker's presence at the head of the bipartisan panel created by Congress has attracted intense interest in foreign policy circles because of his closeness to the Bush family. Some view the panel's recommendations as a possible vehicle to revisit Iraq policy after the elections.

The administration is cooperating with the panel, and President Bush said this week that he looks forward to its recommendations. "I think it's good to have some of our elder statesmen . . . go over there and take a look," he said Wednesday.

Still, as the options papers suggest, the panel is looking well beyond Bush's current strategy, which involves 140,000 U.S. troops trying to maintain security until the new government's security forces can keep the peace.

According to the Sun, one paper says: "The United States should aim for stability particularly in Baghdad and political accommodation in Iraq rather than victory." The other option, titled "Redeploy and Contain," calls for the phased withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, though when and where they would go is unclear.

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