Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The Pentagon is drafting its own new options for winning in Iraq, in part, to give President Bush counterproposals to fall back on in case the Iraq Study Group comes up with ideas he does not like, defense officials say.

Meanwhile, study group co-chairman Lee H. Hamilton, a former Democratic representative from Indiana, told The Washington Times yesterday that he and co-chairman James A. Baker III, secretary of state in the first Bush administration, have nearly completed a first draft report.

Mr. Hamilton said the two men hope to complete it this weekend, give it to the eight other Iraq Study Group members in time for a meeting next week to review it. The report contains Mr. Hamilton’s and Mr. Baker’s assessment of the Iraq situation and recommendations to Mr. Bush.

The 10 members will then accept, reject or modify the ideas, and Mr. Hamilton cautioned that the panel has no deadline to produce a final report.

“The whole thing could be changed,” Mr. Hamilton said. “We do feel like we should move ahead with due diligence.”

Mr. Hamilton declined to discuss the options. Mr. Baker has said publicly he believes in talking to one’s enemies, an indication that the study group will recommend opening dialogues with Syria and Iran, two U.S. adversaries that border Iraq and support the insurgents.

Mr. Hamilton said the group has heard from more than 250 people, both in and out of government.

“We are inundated with recommendations at this point,” he said. “I literally can’t go anywhere without people making recommendations to me. But that’s good.”

The Baker-Hamilton group will not be the only source of new ideas on Iraq for the president in a war that an increasing number of Americans say lacks progress. The Pentagon is also leading an extensive review.

The defense officials said they do not want the Iraq Study Group’s options to go unchallenged in case it proposes items that Mr. Bush does not like, such as a timetable for removing troops.

“I don’t think anyone is comfortable with one organization coming up with a list of recommendations,” said a senior Pentagon official involved in the war review, adding that the Pentagon review could produce ideas that compete with or are counter to the Iraq Study Group’s.

Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, began leading the Pentagon’s review in September. The Joint Staff, the Joint Chiefs planning arm, is studying ideas — from adding troops to reducing them as well as making new efforts to win the support of Sunni Muslims who lead the insurgency.

A likely option will be to find ways to accelerate the deployment of Iraqi brigades, defense officials say. This is a move advocated by House Armed Services Chairman Duncan Hunter, California Republican. In theory, some officials see it as the only promising option for reducing the American presence in Iraq and thus reducing casualties.

An adviser to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said, “If we had a silver bullet, we would have fired it a long time ago.”

Defense officials say they doubt that Gen. Pace will recommend a major increase in troops. The Army today is hard-pressed to maintain the bulk of 147,000 troops in Iraq. Stateside brigades lack basic equipment on which to train because the Army puts deployed units at the top of the priority list for weapons and other equipment.

Mr. Rumsfeld is leaving the Pentagon next month after the expected Senate confirmation of Robert M. Gates as his successor. The bulk of the review work is falling on Gen. Pace, who under law is the top military adviser to the president.

Gen. John Abizaid, the top U.S. commander in the region, has made a passionate case for keeping American troop levels where they are now, thus requiring Gen. Pace to overrule a combatant commander if he wants a troop increase.

“Our troops’ posture needs to stay where it is as we move to enhance the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces,” Gen. Abizaid, who heads U.S. Central Command, last week told the Senate Armed Services Committee, “and then we need to assess whether or not we can bring major combat units out of there.”

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