By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 8, 2007 4:04 PM
In a report to be released Sunday, a panel of experts assembled by the U.S. Institute of Peace calls for a 50 percent reduction in U.S. forces in Iraq within three years and a total withdrawal and handover of security to the Iraqi military in five years.
"The United States faces too many challenges around the world to continue its current level of effort in Iraq, or even the deployment that was in place before the surge," the report says. " . . . It is time to chart a clearer path forward."
The panel includes many of the experts that advised the Iraq Study Group panel led by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former Democratic congressman Lee H. Hamilton, which issued its report last December. Many of its recommendations have since been adopted, some reluctantly, by the Bush administration. The U.S. Institute of Peace ran the Baker-Hamilton report and assembled the experts.
The White House blocked the reconvening of the Baker-Hamilton panel, which was evenly divided among 10 prominent Democrats and Republicans, by urging Baker not to participate, according to U.S. officials. So USIP reconvened the experts who had advised them. The group, which met through the summer, is made up of some two dozen former U.S. officials and ambassadors, former CIA analysts, and Iraq specialists from think tanks and universities.
The recommendations in "Iraq: A Time for Change," the last of several reports published in the run-up to the Bush administration's assessment of Iraq this week, also call on the United Nations to immediately begin "intense negotiations" among Iraq's squabbling politicians. The talks should not be allowed to adjourn without agreements on power-sharing, revising the constitution, oil resources, local elections, easing a ban on former Baath Party members and the future of Kirkuk, the report urges. A similar model was used to broker an end to the war in Bosnia.
With some recent security improvements, the biggest problem facing the Bush administration and Iraq is the failure of politicians in Baghdad to reconcile Sunni and Shiite factions and pass critical laws to secure the fledgling new democracy. "The situation remains fluid, but a window has opened, fleetingly, for Iraq to proceed with political reconciliation. Iraq's national politicians have been unable to take full advantage of this opportunity," says the report, authored by USIP vice president Daniel Serwer.
The Baker-Hamilton report was most contentious because of its recommendations on diplomatic outreach to Iran and Syria. The new report says the United States should block Iranian attempts to control Iraqi politics and interdict its arms supplies to Iraqi militias, while also continuing to talk to Tehran directly and accommodating some Iranian interests in a neighboring state. "As long as the U.S. and Iran engage in a zero sum context for influence, Iraq will remain in turmoil and the U.S. will be bogged down," the report warns.
The report generally blasts Iraq's neighbors for failing to help stabilize Iraq. But it also criticizes the United States for losing the confidence of key allies in the region because of Iraq.
In contrast to a growing number of recent calls for various forms of breaking up Iraq along religious and ethnic lines, the report strongly stands against partition of one of the geo-strategic powerhouses in the Middle East, but leaves the question of decentralizing power to the Iraqis.