By Peter Baker and Dafna Linzer
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 6, 2006
The bipartisan Iraq Study Group plans to recommend to President Bush that he threaten to reduce economic and military support for Iraq's government if it fails to meet specific benchmarks intended to improve security in the country, a source familiar with the report said yesterday.
The congressionally chartered panel, which is due to deliver its much-anticipated report to Bush at the White House this morning and then unveil it to the public, outlined diplomatic and military ideas intended to change the course of the 44-month-old war. Among other things, the source said, the report urges Bush to aggressively tackle the Israeli-Palestinian dispute to reduce the broader regional tensions fueling the Iraq conflict.
The latest details to emerge from the commission's report help flesh out a plan that also calls for the United States to withdraw nearly all combat units by early 2008 while leaving behind tens of thousands of troops to advise, train and embed with Iraqi forces. The report suggests that the Bush administration open talks with Iran and Syria about ways to end the violence in Iraq and proposes holding a regional conference to bring together all of Iraq's neighbors.
Some proposals in the report track measures that the administration is already carrying out or is considering, but several directly challenge Bush in areas in which he has refused to compromise. The president has rejected talking with Iran and Syria and has resisted linking the Iraq war to the Palestinian issue. He has dismissed timetables for troop withdrawals, although the panel cites 2008 as a goal rather than a firm deadline. He has also declined to punish Iraqis for not making progress in establishing security.
Although the study group will present its plan as a much-needed course change in Iraq, many of its own advisers concluded during its deliberations that the war is essentially already lost, according to private correspondence obtained yesterday and interviews with participants. The best the commission could put forward would be the "least bad" of many bad options, as former ambassador Daniel C. Kurtzer wrote.
An early working draft from July stated that "there is even doubt that any level of resources could achieve the administration's stated goals, given the illiberal and undemocratic political forces, many of them Islamic fundamentalists, that will dominate large parts of the country for a long time."
In private e-mail exchanges over the past two weeks, members of the commission's working group, including former ambassadors, military officers and CIA analysts, expressed equally bleak outlooks for Iraq and skepticism that Bush would accept the panel's recommendations.
The report that resulted from that process is a mix of initiatives and conclusions that cover an array of areas, including a long diplomatic section, a security section and the proposed benchmarks for Iraqi leaders. Former secretary of state James A. Baker III, who served under President George H.W. Bush and co-chaired the commission, briefed the current president on its conclusions over lunch yesterday.
Baker and his co-chairman, former congressman Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), and the rest of the 10-member panel will meet with Bush at the White House at 7 a.m. today to formally hand over the report, then travel to Capitol Hill for an 11 a.m. news conference. The report will be released at that time on four Web sites and is being published today as a mass-market paperback by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, under the title "The Iraq Study Group Report: The Way Forward -- a New Approach."
Some of its conclusions, such as the need for a phased withdrawal and for shifting the mission of U.S. forces, have been reported over the past few days. Much of the report, though, emphasizes diplomatic options. Advisers said they pushed for dialogue with Iraq's immediate neighbors, Iran and Syria, as a major path toward improving the situation, despite a belief that Bush would reject the recommendation outright because of those countries' ties to terrorism.
Baker, who as secretary of state spent much time working to bring peace to the Middle East after the Persian Gulf War, made a personal point of including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the report and "laying out the importance of why it needs to be dealt with and a strategy to deal with it," said a source familiar with the report. Baker has been close to the Saudi royal family and his ideas may provoke opposition from Israel and its allies.
The benchmarks laid out for Iraqi forces are similar to the goals the Iraqi government recently embraced, the source said. Unlike Bush, though, the commission recommends consequences for not meeting them. "If they don't do it, we ought to reduce the military, economic and political support," the source said.
At the same time, the source said, the U.S. military strategy ought to be implemented regardless of whether Iraqis meet their benchmarks. But the commission warns against turning over control of security to Iraqi forces until reforms are in place.
Clifford May, one of the working group's advisers and a former Republican Party spokesman, was one of two advisers who opposed withdrawal and supported Bush's strategy, but he said he "was willing to concede from the start that what Bush hoped for is probably not achievable. But it doesn't mean that nothing is achievable."
May said the report includes "at least 70 recommendations," but a timetable for troop withdrawal is not among them. "Instead, it says we have a mission that can be accomplished, and it defines that mission as the need to leave behind a government that can sustain itself," May said.
Much debate in e-mail exchanges among the most outspoken advisers to the study group focused on whether adding troops would help. But most feared that bringing in the large numbers required would break the military, lead to a surge in U.S. deaths and do nothing to better protect civilians.
In the end, the experts did not agree on sending additional forces beyond military advisers for the Iraqi national army. They seemed certain that Bush would reject most of their recommendations and that few could work anyway.
"Very early on, the notion of achieving some sort of victory didn't take," said Chas W. Freeman Jr., a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia. "So if victory is not possible and not feasible, even if you could define it, then what you're left with is to find some way to mitigate defeat."
James Dobbins, a principal U.S. architect of the Afghan reconciliation process, said he supported "an intensified regional dialogue that would be comprehensive and encompass all of Iraq's neighbors." But he and others on the staff said a push for more U.S. engagement with Israel and the Palestinians was rarely discussed beyond a few e-mail exchanges.
"It was kind of assumed by everybody that if the U.S. devoted more attention to it, it would be a good thing in its own right, but we didn't devote much time to that, so if it becomes a recommendation, it would likely come directly from Baker and Hamilton," said Kurtzer, who served as U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.