By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 6, 2008
A new assessment of U.S. policy in Iraq by the same experts who advised the original Iraq Study Group concludes that political progress is "so slow, halting and superficial" and political fragmentation "so pronounced" that the United States is no closer to being able to leave Iraq than it was a year ago.
The experts were reassembled by the U.S. Institute of Peace, which convened the congressionally mandated Iraq Study Group, a high-level panel that assessed U.S. policy in Iraq and offered recommendations in 2006. The new report predicts that lasting political development could take five to 10 years of "full, unconditional commitment" to Iraq, but also cautions that future progress may not be worth the "massive" human and financial costs to the United States.
Some recent favorable developments in Iraq come from factors "that are outside U.S. control" and susceptible to rapid change, the report said, including the cease-fire by Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and the new Sunni Awakening councils made up of former insurgents and tribal leaders opposed to the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
The report, obtained by The Washington Post, is due for release today.
Should the United States opt to remain fully engaged in Iraq, the new report argues, a greater emphasis on political and economic development at the local level is critical, as the Maliki government, elected in 2005, has failed to connect with its own people.
"Rather than trying to resolve long-term, controversial political issues about the nature of the Iraqi state, the U.S. could let those questions linger and instead work on governing capacity building at the provincial and local levels and cultivating new, local leaders," it advises. The rise of local leaders and parties could then create the circumstances for genuine reconciliation, the report says.
The political, military and intelligence experts, some of whom have served in government, also urge consideration of a "grand bargain" to bring all Iraqi factions together to discuss the core disputes, including the distribution of power, federalism and constitutional revisions.
The report outlines two options if Washington seeks to reduce its Iraq commitment. The first option would peg U.S. engagement to Iraq's agreement to decentralize power to its provinces, leaving the Baghdad government in charge of national defense and revenue distribution only. If Iraq fails to act, however, Washington should "cut its losses" and work out a withdrawal schedule; if Iraq complies, the United States should maintain a reduced troop presence to train the army and police.
"Reductions in troop levels will likely result in some degree of chaos and violence no matter what," the report warns. "The decentralized, fragmented political dynamic in Iraq cannot be reversed." Creation of a strong central government that can take on security is unlikely to happen in the time left for the current expanded U.S. military presence.
The second option is unconditional redeployment of all U.S. forces in Iraq, possibly beginning in January and completed by 2011. At the same time, however, Washington would build an "enhanced" military presence in the region and stronger regional alliances, while providing political support for the Baghdad government.
The original Iraq Study Group was chaired by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former congressman Lee H. Hamilton (Ind.). Its recommendations, delivered in a December 2006 report, included the beginning of a phased withdrawal of combat forces from Iraq by early this year and a greater emphasis on regional diplomacy, including reaching out to Iran and Syria.
The White House blocked efforts to reassemble the 10-member bipartisan panel for a second review by discouraging Baker not to participate, although Hamilton was interested in a sequel timed to the assessment this week by Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker, according to several sources involved in the project.