- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 7, 2006

The Iraq Study Group yesterday urged President Bush to withdraw almost all U.S. combat forces from Iraq by the beginning of 2008 and called for the administration to engage directly in diplomatic talks with longtime foes Iran and Syria to correct a “grave and deteriorating” situation in Iraq.

The report, compiled over nine months by the panel’s five Republicans and five Democrats, runs through a series of options for dealing with Iraq, both general and specific.

Throughout, the panel encourages regional diplomacy — urging that U.S. efforts begin by Dec. 31 — and calls on Iraqis to take far greater responsibility for, and control of, their country’s fate. The panel recommends that the U.S. reduce political, military or economic support to Iraq if the government in Baghdad cannot make substantial progress toward providing for its own security.

The panel offered several carrots with the sticks, recommending that the U.S. provide $5 billion a year in economic assistance, better coordinate humanitarian and other aid, and encourage other countries to help.

The president was conciliatory after a morning meeting with the bipartisan 10-member panel — saying the 79 recommendations in a 160-page report delivered yesterday will be “taken very seriously” — but the White House said just hours later that it has “ruled out” engaging in one-on-one talks with Iran.

The panel’s call for such direct talks run counter to the views of the president, who has long opposed face-to-face talks with Iran. The panel said “given the ability of Iran and Syria to influence events within Iraq and their interest in avoiding chaos in Iraq, the United States should try to engage them constructively.”

White House spokesman Tony Snow said diplomacy could be served by talking with Iran in a group of regional leaders, similar to the six-party talks with North Korea that includes the country’s neighbors.

“There may be a difference between one-on-one talks with Iran, which is something that we have ruled out,” Mr. Snow said, “unless Iran verifiably suspends its enrichment and reprocessing activities.”

The panel, a group of 10 senior former officeholders led by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, Indiana Democrat, concluded that there is no way of “staying the course,” as the Bush administration had called for, without risking “a slide toward chaos.” The panel urged the administration to begin looking for a way out.

“By the first quarter of 2008, subject to unexpected developments in the security situation on the ground, all combat brigades not necessary for force protection could be out of Iraq,” the report said. “The primary mission of U.S. forces in Iraq should evolve to one of supporting the Iraqi army, which would take over primary responsibility for combat operations.”

Mr. Baker said the panel “did not recommend a precipitous withdrawal of troops because that might not only cause a bloodbath, it would also invite a wider regional war.” He agreed with the bleak assessment and said the status quo must change. “We do not recommend a stay-the-course solution; in our opinion, that approach is no longer viable,” he said.

Mr. Hamilton, joining his co-chairman at a Capitol Hill press conference, concurred.

“The current approach is not working. And the ability of the United States to influence events is diminishing,” he said. “Many Americans are understandably dissatisfied. Our ship of state has hit rough waters. It must now chart a new way forward.”

While rejecting a sudden withdrawal — which the president has long opposed — the panel rebuffed suggestions to increase troop levels by as many as 200,000 troops. Instead, the group endorsed a short-term “surge” in troops devoted to training and equipping Iraqi security forces, an approach that the president advocates, and the military has urged. The panel suggested increasing the number of trainers from 3,000 to 4,000 currently, to up to 20,000.

Reaction to the report was swift on Capitol Hill, with Democrats speaking with a unified voice as they found what they call vindication for views that some, but not all, Democrats have espoused.

“Like the Iraq Study Group, I urge the president to change course,” said Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, who will become the majority leader when the 110th Congress convenes next month. “Their report underscores the message the American people sent one month ago: there must be change in Iraq, and there is no time to lose.”

Said Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, who expects to become speaker of the House: “The bipartisan Iraq Study Group has concluded that the president’s Iraq policy has failed and must be changed. As the November elections clearly demonstrated, that is an assessment shared by the American people.”

For his part, the president urged “the members of Congress to take this report seriously. While they won’t agree with every proposal, and we probably won’t agree with every proposal, it nevertheless is an opportunity to come together and to work together on this important issue.” Mr. Bush met in the afternoon with congressmen from both parties and both chambers of Congress.

Observing that the country is “tired of pure political bickering,” Mr. Bush said he plans to move swiftly on the report’s recommendations.

“I told the members that this report, called ‘The Way Forward,’ will be taken very seriously by this administration. This report gives a very tough assessment of the situation in Iraq. It is a report that brings some really very interesting proposals, and we will take every proposal seriously and we will act in a timely fashion.

“This report will give us all an opportunity to find common ground, for the good of the country. Not for the good of the Republican Party or the Democratic Party, but for the good of the country.”

The report was delivered as Democrats stood poised to take over both chambers of Congress next month, and on a day when another 10 U.S. troops were killed in Iraq, some by roadside bombs, others in fierce combat that has spread out from Baghdad. The toll of U.S. dead has surpassed 2,900.

In Baghdad, Iraqi government officials said the report and its recommendations did “not come as a surprise.” Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh said the report was “in agreement with the national Iraqi vision.”

“Absolute dependence on foreign troops is not possible. The focus must be on boosting the Iraqi security forces,” Mr. Saleh told the Al Arabiya satellite television channel.

Both Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and the terrorist group Hamas, which dominates the Palestinian legislature, praised the report’s call for a resumption of talks toward an independent Palestinian state.

But Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said that the Iraqi strife “will be solved through withdrawal” of U.S. forces and thus “should not need any negotiation with Iran or other countries in the region.”

The study group said it fears that Sunni-Shi’ite sectarian strife now running rampant in Iraq could spill over into the rest of the Middle East. Echoing the sentiment of many Democrats, the report charges that the situation in Iraq has lent credibility to al Qaeda among Muslims and reduced the U.S. military’s ability to defeat terrorists in Afghanistan.

Mr. Baker and Mr. Hamilton said in a joint letter accompanying the report that “all options have not been exhausted. We believe it is still possible to pursue different policies that can give Iraq an opportunity for a better future, combat terrorism, stabilize a critical region of the world and protect America’s credibility, interests and values.”

Hearings begin today when Mr. Baker and Mr. Hamilton appear before the Senate Armed Services Committee to discuss their findings. Mr. Hamilton said yesterday that members of the panel already have gotten 15 to 20 invitations to testify on Capitol Hill.

• Charles Hurt contributed to this report.

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