Chairmen Urge Bush to Follow Recommendations

By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 7, 2006; 4:40 PM

The chairmen of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group today urged President Bush to follow their full slate of recommendations, as one key senator criticized the panel's report as a recipe for defeat.

In a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former Democratic congressman Lee H. Hamilton also criticized the current government of Iraq and said a main thrust of their work is to hold Iraqi officials more accountable for events in the country.

"The Iraqi government has not performed well. It is a weak government. . . . Our approach to this point has been to give assistance without conditionality," said Hamilton. "We are pouring huge resources in there, and why wouldn't they be satisfied with that?" he asked. "This government has not taken the tough steps it needs to take."

Today's hearing came as lawmakers, observers and the president himself began digesting the conclusions and recommendations of the Iraq Study Group. The panel, assessing the state of the nearly four-year-old conflict, has called for a major change in direction that puts more onus on the Iraqis to police their own country and calls for the exit of most American combat troops by early 2008.

While Baker and Hamilton reiterated their feeling that Iraq policy needed a dose of pragmatism, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said he thought the call to begin withdrawing troops is a "recipe that will lead to our defeat in Iraq."

McCain has called for a large increase in troops to overcome the sectarian militias and insurgent groups that have pushed the country toward anarchy.

"There's only one thing worse than an overstressed Army and Marine Corps, and that's a defeated Army and Marine Corps," McCain said.

Baker said the Iraq panel felt it was adequate to keep a force of perhaps 20,000 in the country to "embed" with and train Iraqi forces, along with a "robust deployment" of additional troops to protect the trainers. There are currently about 140,000 troops in Iraq.

Both Baker and Hamilton also questioned one of the Bush administration's original premises for the 2003 invasion -- that going into Iraq was necessary to defeat al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York and Washington.

Asked directly by Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) whether Iraq was central to the war on terror, Baker said "it may not have been when we first went in," even though he felt "it certainly is now."

Since the invasion, Iraq has attracted foreign fighters who have launched attacks on Americans and helped stir sectarian violence between Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority and its Sunni Muslim Arab minority.

Hamilton said Iraq is one central front in the war on terror, "but to put it the central front overstates it."

The study group concluded that the al-Qaeda presence in Iraq is relatively small, particularly compared to the tens of thousands of Iraqis involved in sectarian militias.

The Iraq Study Group's report is one of several policy reviews that the Bush administration says it will consider in coming weeks as it decides what changes to make in its Iraq strategy.

In a press conference today, Bush seemed to reject the panel's call to scale back U.S. ambitions, repeating his feeling that the war in Iraq is part of a broader ideological struggle -- akin to the Cold War or World War II -- against extremist groups trying to influence the Muslim world.

While acknowledging that Bush will consult a number of sources for advice, Baker told the committee that the group's report was not a "fruit salad" whose recommendations could easily be sorted.

"This is a comprehensive strategy to face this problem in Iraq," Baker said, and its recommendations would help "restore American standing and credibility in the world."

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