News On Iran & Its NeighboursIraqPanel to weigh overture by U.S. to Iran and...

Panel to weigh overture by U.S. to Iran and Syria


New York Times: A draft report on strategies for Iraq, which will be debated here by a bipartisan commission beginning Monday, urges an aggressive regional diplomatic initiative that includes direct talks with Iran and Syria but sets no timetables for a military withdrawal, according to officials who have seen all or parts of the document. The New York Times

Published: November 27, 2006

WASHINGTON, Nov. 26 — A draft report on strategies for Iraq, which will be debated here by a bipartisan commission beginning Monday, urges an aggressive regional diplomatic initiative that includes direct talks with Iran and Syria but sets no timetables for a military withdrawal, according to officials who have seen all or parts of the document.

While the diplomatic strategy appears likely to be accepted, with some amendments, by the 10-member Iraq Study Group, members of the commission and outsiders involved in its work said they expected a potentially divisive debate about timetables for beginning an American withdrawal.

In interviews, several officials said announcing a major withdrawal was the only way to persuade the government of Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, to focus on creating an effective Iraqi military force.

Several commission members, including some Democrats, are discussing proposals that call for a declaration that within a specified period of time, perhaps as short as a year, a significant number of American troops should be withdrawn, regardless of whether the Iraqi government’s forces are declared ready to defend the country.

Among the ideas are embedding far more American training teams into Iraqi military units in a last-ditch improvement effort. While numbers are still approximate, phased withdrawal of combat troops over the next year would leave 70,000 to 80,000 American troops in the country, compared with about 150,000 now.

“It’s not at all clear that we can reach consensus on the military questions,” one member of the commission said late last week.

The draft report, according to those who have seen it, seems to link American withdrawal to the performance of the Iraqi military, as President Bush has done. But details of the performance benchmarks, which were described as not specific, could not be obtained, and it is this section of the report that is most likely to be revised.

While the commission is scheduled to meet here for two days this week, officials say the session may be extended if members have trouble reaching consensus.

Meanwhile, Mr. Bush will be visiting Latvia and Estonia, then will head to Amman, Jordan, on Wednesday for two days of meetings with Mr. Maliki and King Abdullah II of Jordan.

The recommendations of the commission, an independent advisory group created at the suggestion of several members of Congress, are expected to carry unusual weight because its members, drawn from both political parties, have deep experience in foreign policy. They include its co-chairmen, former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, a Republican, and Lee H. Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman.

Though the commission has met many times, interviewing administration officials, policy experts, military officers and others, the meeting here on Monday will be the first time that members have gathered to hash out the most difficult issues.

The basis for their discussion will be a draft report that Mr. Baker and Mr. Hamilton directed the commission staff to prepare, based on informal conversations among the members.

The group is expected to present its final report to President Bush and to Congress in December.

The commission’s co-chairmen have urged members and staff not to discuss their deliberations. As a result, those who were willing to talk about the commission’s work and the draft reports did so on the condition of anonymity.

President Bush is not bound by the commission’s recommendations, and during a trip to Southeast Asia that ended just before Thanksgiving, he made it clear that he would also give considerable weight to studies under way by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and his own National Security Council.

Last Monday in Bogor, Indonesia, he said he planned to make no decisions on troop increases or decreases “until I hear from a variety of sources, including our own United States military.”

But privately, administration officials seem deeply concerned about the weight of the findings of the Baker-Hamilton commission.

“I think there is fear that anything they say will seem like they are etched in stone tablets,” said a senior American diplomat. “It’s going to be hard for the president to argue that a group this distinguished, and this bipartisan, has got it wrong.”

Mr. Bush’s nominee for secretary of defense, Robert M. Gates, resigned from the commission after his nomination this month, and was replaced by Lawrence S. Eagleburger, another Republican who once was secretary of state. Mr. Gates has said little about his thoughts on military strategy, other than to express amazement when he visited Iraq with the study group over Labor Day that the administration had let the situation spin so far out of control.

Mr. Bush spent 90 minutes with commission members in a closed session at the White House two weeks ago “essentially arguing why we should embrace what amounts to a ‘stay the course’ strategy,” said one commission official who was present.

Officials said that the draft of the section on diplomatic strategy, which was heavily influenced by Mr. Baker, seemed to reflect his public criticism of the administration for its unwillingness to talk with nations like Iran and Syria.

But senior administration officials, including Stephen J. Hadley, the president’s national security adviser, have expressed skepticism that either of those nations would go along, especially while Iran is locked in a confrontation with the United States over its nuclear program. “Talking isn’t a strategy,” he said in an interview in October.

“The issue is how can we condition the environment so that Iran and Syria will make a 180-degree turn, so that rather than undermining the Iraqi government, they will support it.”

Administration officials appear to be taking steps that will enable them to declare that they are already implementing parts of the Baker-Hamilton report, even before its release. On Saturday, Vice President Dick Cheney flew to Saudi Arabia for a meeting with King Abdullah, whom he has known for 17 years.

An official who was briefed on the vice president’s trip, and who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about it with reporters, said discussion at the two-hour meeting had covered all the crises in the Middle East.

“The best way to describe it is as a consultation, on a number of issues,” that official said. “But because Iraq is such a big issue, it obviously took up a major part of the conversation.”

The official said Mr. Cheney had not gone to Riyadh to enlist Saudi help for any specific proposals on Iraq.

During an interview on the ABC News program “This Week” on Sunday, King Abdullah said that his agenda with the president extended beyond Iraq, and that his top concern in the region was the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians — which he called the “core issue” in the Middle East — along with tensions in Lebanon.

But, he said, he was hoping that Mr. Bush’s meeting with Mr. Maliki would bring about “something dramatic” to stop the violence in Iraq.

Last week, administration officials played down expectations for the meeting with Mr. Maliki. But they are clearly hoping that Mr. Maliki will show a greater willingness to crack down on the Shiite militias, including the militia run by the powerful cleric Moktada al-Sadr.

While it is unclear what private messages Mr. Bush was preparing for Mr. Maliki, the public message will be an eagerness to turn more operational control over to the Iraqis, as soon as they are prepared to handle it.

“Any disarming of the militias — in large part because there is such a political element to that — is most effectively carried out by the Iraqi security forces,” said Dan Bartlett, the White House counselor.

Jim Rutenberg contributed reporting.

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