Report on Iraq will urge talks with Syria, Iran
WASHINGTON - A draft report on strategies for Iraq, which will be debated here by a bipartisan commission beginning today, 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.
Although 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 that announcing a major withdrawal is the only way to persuade the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri 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that within a specified period of time, perhaps as short as a year, a significant number of U.S. troops should be withdrawn, regardless of whether the Iraqi government's forces are declared ready to defend the country themselves.
One proposal would involve putting more American trainers into Iraqi military units in a last-ditch improvement effort, coupled with a withdrawal that in a 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 commission member said late last week.
The draft, according to those who have seen it, appears to link American withdrawal to the performance of the Iraqi military, as President Bush has done. But the performance benchmarks are not specific.
While the commission is scheduled to meet here for two days this week, officials say the session may be extended if members are having trouble reaching a consensus.
Meanwhile, Bush will visit Latvia and Estonia, then head to Amman, Jordan, on Wednesday for two days of meetings with Maliki and King Abdullah II of Jordan.
The recommendations of the commission are expected to carry unusual weight because its members, drawn from both political parties, have deep experience in foreign policy, including its co-chairmen, former Secretary of State James Baker III, a Republican, and Lee Hamilton, a Democrat and former congressman.
The meeting here today will be the first in which members have gathered to hash out the most difficult issues. The basis for their discussion will be a draft report that Baker and Hamilton had the commission staff prepare based on conversations among the members.
The group is expected to present its final report to Bush and Congress next month.
Those who spoke about the commission's work and the draft reports did so only on the condition of anonymity.
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 National Security Council.
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," one senior diplomat said. "It's going to be hard for the president to argue that a group this distinguished, and this bipartisan, has got it wrong."
Officials said that the draft of the section on diplomatic strategy, which was heavily influenced by Baker, seemed to reflect his public criticism of the administration for its unwillingness to talk with enemies, particularly Iran and Syria.
But senior administration officials, including National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, have expressed skepticism that either nation will 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."