Iraq Panel Proposes Major Strategy Shift

By Michael Abramowitz and Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 7, 2006

A panel of prominent elder leaders yesterday offered a stinging assessment of virtually every aspect of the U.S. venture in Iraq and called for a reshaping of the American military presence and a new Middle East diplomatic initiative to prevent the country from sliding into anarchy.

The long-awaited report from the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, co-chaired by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former Indiana congressman Lee H. Hamilton, said that the focus of U.S. troops in Iraq should shift from combat to training Iraqi soldiers and police, and that all combat brigades not necessary for force protection could be withdrawn by early 2008.

At the same time, the panel said, the United States should launch a new round of Middle East diplomacy, including a revived effort to solve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, aimed at building an international consensus for stabilizing Iraq. As part of this initiative, the group urged the Bush administration to break with its policy of not having high-level dialogues with Iran and Syria, though members of the commission held out little hope that the two countries, longtime rivals of the United States, would be interested in joining the effort.

As they presented their findings, members of the commission made clear their belief that the Bush administration's Iraq policy is failing. They said they hope that the report would prove to be a catalyst of a new bipartisanship on Iraq after years of acrimony in U.S. politics, and that it would help bring consensus to the American people.

Whether both can be achieved is uncertain. Democrats on Capitol Hill welcomed the report but said that the onus is on President Bush to implement the recommendations. For his part, Bush thanked the Iraq Study Group and described its report as "an opportunity to find common ground." But he offered no immediate endorsement or rejection of any of its recommendations.

As Baker and Hamilton unveiled the report at a Capitol Hill news conference with the other eight panel members, the co-chairmen warned that success in Iraq would not be guaranteed even if all their 79 recommendations were adopted by Congress and the administration.

"There is no magic formula that will solve the problems of Iraq," said Baker, a Republican. "But to give the Iraqi government a chance to succeed, United States policy must be focused more broadly than on military strategy alone or on Iraq alone. It must seek the active and constructive engagement of all governments that have an interest in avoiding chaos in Iraq."

Hamilton, a Democrat, said the situation in Iraq is very grave. "We do not know if it can be turned around, but we think we have an obligation to try; and if the recommendations that we have made are effectively implemented, there is at least a chance that you can see established a stable government in Iraq," he said. "The task ahead of us is daunting . . . but it is not, by any means, lost."

Except for the recommendations on Iran and Syria, the panel appeared to steer away from language that might inflame the Bush administration, which has said that it will consider the Iraq Study Group report as part of its own review of strategy and tactics in Iraq. The panel did not, for instance, set a formal timetable for troop withdrawal, instead setting 2008 as a goal for the withdrawal of U.S. combat brigades based on an estimate by U.S. commanders for when Iraqi forces will be ready to take charge of the country's security needs.

But in language and tone, the 96-page report offered an assessment of the U.S. mission in Iraq that was strikingly different from what has been heard until recently from the White House. There was no mention of the goal of establishing democracy, and no discussion of "victory" or the centrality of Iraq in "the war on terror" -- staples of Bush rhetoric.

Although the group stressed that it did not look backward at the mistakes in Iraq -- "how the house got on fire," in the words of panel member Vernon E. Jordan Jr., a Democratic power broker -- it offered scathing assessments of the competence of the Iraqi government, the accuracy of U.S. intelligence on the insurgency, the lack of coordination of economic assistance and many other issues. The panel took a veiled shot at outgoing Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, saying that Robert M. Gates, the incoming Pentagon chief, who was confirmed by the Senate yesterday, should create "an environment in which the senior military feel free to offer independent advice" to the president and other civilian leaders.

Coming from a group made up in part by five stalwarts of the Republican establishment -- including former attorney general Edwin Meese III, retired Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Connor and Baker himself, a longtime associate of former president George H.W. Bush -- the sober report seemed likely to accelerate the reevaluation of Iraq policy now being reviewed by Congress and the administration, according to lawmakers and others involved in policymaking. But experts inside and outside the government voiced some skepticism that the recommendations themselves amounted to a coherent strategy that could accomplish the goal of stabilizing Iraq and reducing the U.S. military presence there.

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