By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 22, 2007
The Iraq Study Group, the bipartisan panel that mapped out an alternative U.S. strategy for Iraq last December, may be reconstituted for a sequel.
In a sign of the growing public pressure on Congress, the House voted 355 to 69 yesterday to revive the 10-member panel chaired by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former congressman Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.) to again review U.S. policy and offer new recommendations.
"I'm receptive to reconstituting the group, but I can only speak for myself as I don't know feelings of the group and Baker is traveling," Hamilton said in an interview. "If Congress thinks we can be constructive, then I think we should do it."
The House vote was on an amendment proposed by Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) to an appropriations bill providing $34.2 billion for State Department and foreign operations. Now that the House has voted, a bipartisan group within Congress -- including Shays and Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) -- will seek an alternative source of funding since the bill is not likely to pass quickly enough for the Iraq Study Group to report in the fall.
Shays said the Baker-Hamilton group could play a pivotal role again. "Last fall, the Iraq Study Group provided Congress a thoughtful assessment on one of the most important issues of our time," Shays said in an interview. "As we approach another crossroad in this conflict, having that thoughtful insight again will be invaluable."
The goal is to have the group make its new report within about a month of the assessments scheduled to be outlined to Congress in September by Gen. David H. Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan C. Crocker on military and political progress in Iraq, Shays said.
"You'll have two different reports and see where they complement and where they disagree. If they come to the same conclusion, then it gives endorsement to Petraeus or Crocker," Shays said. "If there's disagreement, then that is important as well."
The U.S. Institute of Peace is ready to run the project, as it did last time. "We are prepared to play the kind of facilitating role that we did in the initial round, but at this point it depends on the co-chairs agreeing to proceed on this new round," USIP President Richard H. Solomon said in an interview.
Several of the Iraq Study Group's recommendations, initially rejected by the Bush administration, have since been adopted.
Among the three key proposals, the panel of five prominent Republicans and five Democrats urged diplomatic outreach to Iran and Syria in order to broaden regional cooperation in stabilizing Iraq. Last month, U.S. and Iranian diplomats had their first public bilateral meeting in almost three decades.
The panel also urged that benchmarks of progress for the Iraqi government be defined and that U.S. aid and military support be made conditional on performance. Pressing the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to meet political benchmarks is now a central aspect of administration strategy. The panel also said the primary U.S. military function should increasingly shift to training the new Iraqi military.
"In many ways the administration is coming our way," Hamilton said. "I don't look at it as vindication but as part of the policy process in trying to find a solution to a very difficult problem."