Baker panel seeks fi­nal troop pull­out from Iraq in 2008

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - By Joseph Curl

The Iraq Study Group on Dec. 6 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 — and­call­sonIraqis­to­take­far­greater re­spon­si­bil­ity for, and con­trol of, their coun­try’s fate. The panel rec­om­mends that the U.S. re­duce po­lit­i­cal,mil­i­tary­ore­co­nomic­sup­portto Iraq if the gov­ern­ment in Bagh­dad can­not­make­sub­stan­tial­pro­gressto­ward pro­vid­ing for its own se­cu­rity.

Thep­an­elof­fered­sev­er­al­car­rots 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 af­ter­amorn­ing­meet­ing­with­the­bi­par­ti­san10-mem­ber­panel—say­ing the 79 rec­om­men­da­tions in a 160page re­port will be “taken very se­ri­ously” — but the White House said­justhours­laterthatithas“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 slideto­ward­chaos.”Thep­an­elurged 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 al­soin­viteaw­ider­re­gion­al­war.”He agreed with the bleak as­sess­ment and­saidthes­ta­tusquo­mustchange. “We do not rec­om­mend a stay-the­course so­lu­tion; in our opin­ion, that approach is no longer vi­able,” he said.

Mr. Hamil­ton, join­ing his cochair­man 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,”he­said.“ManyAmer­i­cans are un­der­stand­ably dis­sat­is­fied. Our ship of state has hit rough wa­ters.It­must­nowchar­tanewway 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 short­term “surge” in troops de­voted to train­ing and equip­ping Iraqi se­cu­rity forces, an approach that the pres­i­dent ad­vo­cates, and the mil­i­tary­ha­surged.Thep­an­el­sug­gested 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 speak­ing­with­au­ni­fied­voiceas­t­hey 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 re­por­tun­der­scores­themes­sagethe 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 bi­par­ti­sanIraqS­tudyGrouphas­con­cluded that the pres­i­dent’s Iraq pol­icy has failed and must be changed. As the Novem­ber­elec­tion­scle­ar­ly­demon­strated,thati­sanassess­mentshared 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 op­por­tu­ni­ty­to­come­to­geth­erandto work to­gether on this im­por­tant is­sue.”Mr.Bush­metintheafter­noon with­con­gress­men­from­both­par­ties and both cham­bers of Congress.

Ob­serv­ingth­atthe­coun­tryis“tired of­pure­po­lit­i­cal­bick­er­ing,”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.

“This­re­portwill­giveusal­lanop­por­tu­nity 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.”

“Ab­so­lut­ede­pen­denceon­for­eign 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 Mah­moudAb­basand­theter­ror­ist­group Ha­mas,which­dom­i­nat­es­thePales­tinian 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.BakerandMr.Hamil­ton­said in­a­jointlet­ter­ac­com­pa­ny­ingth­ere­port 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 bet­terfu­ture,com­bat­ter­ror­ism,sta­bi­lize a crit­i­cal re­gion of the world and pro­tect Amer­ica’s cred­i­bil­ity, in­ter­ests and val­ues.”

CharlesHurt­con­tribut­ed­tothis re­port.

Nancy Pas­tor / The Wash­ing­ton Times

The co-chair­men of the Iraq Study Group (stand­ing), for­mer Sec­re­tary of State James A. Baker III and for­mer Rep. Lee H. Hamil­ton, pre­sented the 10-mem­ber panel’s rec­om­men­da­tions in a 160-page re­port on Dec. 6, call­ing for di­rect talks with Iran and Syria.

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