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combat to training Iraqi soldiers and police, and that all combat brigades not necessary for force protection could be withdrawn by early 2008.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.
Congressional Democrats embraced the report's call for a change in tactics in Iraq, and Republicans -- with at least one notable exception in presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) -- generally praised the report, as well. But in a sign of the potential roadblocks ahead, Democratic aides said privately that Democrats want to make it clear that Bush still "owns" the Iraq war, and that if the panel's recommendations fail, they want the blame to fall on Bush, not on them.
"The president has the ball in his court now," said incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). McCain offered a toughly worded statement, questioning the usefulness of reaching out to Syria and Iran, and saying that the link between an Arab-Israeli peace initiative and violence in Iraq "seems tenuous at best."
The most dramatic departure from U.S. policy -- and almost certainly the most controversial part of the report for the Bush administration -- is the panel's call for a "diplomatic offensive" with a region-wide approach to stabilizing Iraq.
The report concluded that the major Middle East flashpoints -- Iraq, the Arab-Israeli conflict, Iran, Lebanon, the need for political reform, Islamic extremism and terrorism -- are all "intricately linked." It recommended actions on problems that have been intractable for more than six decades.
Recommendation 16, for example, called for Israel to return the Golan Heights to Syria, with U.S. security guarantees. In exchange, Syria should agree to peace with Israel, end meddling in Lebanon and Iraq, end aid for Hezbollah, help persuade Hamas to recognize Israel's right to exist and intervene to win the release of captured Israeli soldiers.
The report called for the new strategy to be launched by the end of December. The first step is to immediately organize an International Support Group bringing together all of Iraq's neighbors, most notably Iran and Syria, as well as all the Persian Gulf states, Egypt, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and the European Union.
"In diplomacy, a nation can and should engage its adversaries and enemies to try to resolve conflicts and differences consistent with its own interests," the report said. At the news conference, Baker acknowledged that the limited contacts with Iran already indicate that Tehran is not "chomping at the bit" to hold talks on Iraq.
A senior Iranian official, who was not authorized to comment publicly, said he was disappointed with the report. "The only carrot they offer is no regime change," he said. "That's a helluva way to ask for help. That's not a carrot to offer Iran."
Another major point of the panel's report is the need to set more specific goals for the Iraqi government on national reconciliation, security and governance. The members said the United States should make clear that continued economic, military and political support will be conditioned on Iraq's performance in relation to the milestones.
The panel also recommended shifting the focus of the 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq from combat to training -- a process the administration says has already begun. The Iraqi army should take more responsibility for security, but while the process is underway, the United States should embed substantially more U.S. military personnel in Iraqi units for advice and staff assistance, the panel said.
Such a mission could involve 10,000 to 20,000 U.S. troops, compared with the 3,000 to 4,000 now involved in training and advisory roles. The panel said that, for a variety of reasons, the United States should not make an "open-ended" commitment to keep large numbers of U.S. troops in Iraq, including the need to give Iraqis an incentive to make the political changes necessary to quell sectarian violence.
Rejecting the idea of sustained increases in troop levels, the panel said U.S. forces are stretched so thin in the world that it doubted the troops would be available -- while also questioning the very premise. "While it is clear the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq is moderating the violence," the panel members said, "there is little evidence that the long-term deployment of U.S. troops by itself has led or will lead to fundamental improvements in the security situation."
Staff writers Charles Babington, Glenn Kessler and Josh White contributed to this report.