Bipartisan group to urge pullback of U.S. troops from Iraq _ but no timetable
Thursday, November 30th 2006, 8:25 pm
By: News On 6
WASHINGTON (AP) _ A bipartisan commission on U.S. options in Iraq will recommend a gradual reduction of American forces in Iraq and a significant diplomatic shift that enlists U.S. adversaries to stabilize the increasingly chaotic country, officials familiar with the panel's deliberations said Thursday.
The report will endorse troop withdrawals beginning as soon as early next year but set no deadlines, the officials said. U.S. forces could also be slowly repositioned away from the front lines.
The much-anticipated report is expected to provide political cover to President Bush to meaningfully shift his policies in an unpopular war. Yet advisers to the panel and others aware of its work indicated the recommendations will not be dramatically different from current policy or from ideas already under debate within the administration.
Bush has repeatedly rejected a wholesale pullout or what he calls artificial deadlines.
``This business about a graceful exit just simply has no realism to it at all,'' Bush said Thursday.
A former top U.S. official consulted by the commission said he expected the recommended withdrawal would not be conditioned on the Iraqi government establishing benchmarks to improve security. Many remaining U.S. forces would be lighter support and intelligence units, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the panel's deliberations were private.
The approximately 100-page report will indicate the presence of U.S. troops is part of the problem in Iraq, said another official who also requested anonymity. The panel will demand more accountability from the Iraqi government, although it is not clear how progress would be measured or if there would be specific benchmarks, the official said.
The congressionally chartered panel, whose recommendations are not binding, will encourage Bush to engage U.S. adversaries Syria and Iran to improve regional dialogue, several officials said. That outreach could include a regional conference among all of Iraq's neighbors, or a wider gathering of Middle East nations that would also address separate Middle East peace issues.
A former senior U.S. official who participated in the deliberations said the recommendations will include resumption of Mideast peace talks. The official spoke on condition of anonymity.
The report, due Wednesday, suggests that Bush give Iraqi leaders notice that America's military commitment is not open-ended. The panel's Republican and Democratic members could not agree on bolder proposals. Options to quickly bring home a large percentage of the 140,000 U.S. forces supporting the fragile government in Baghdad or set a clear timeline for withdrawal were on the table.
The compromise strategy the panel endorsed also gives the Bush administration some political leverage to step back from red lines it has set in the Iraq conflict, such as Bush's statement this week that he will never ``pull the troops off the battlefield before the mission is complete.''
Without firm benchmarks for a U.S. military withdrawal, the recommendations would essentially back up Bush's basic policy of using security conditions in Iraq, not a calendar, as the guide to battlefield decisions. The administration has long said it will transfer responsibility for Iraq's security to Iraqi forces as those forces become strong enough to handle the job.
On Capitol Hill, Democrats said the report would be a good first step for their effort to push for a start to U.S. troop withdrawals.
``It's a starting point,'' said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., incoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Sen. John Warner, R-Va., that committee's outgoing chairman, praised the commission and said the administration and Congress have a ``moral responsibility'' to U.S. troops to reach a consensus policy.
In Baghdad, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told ABC News he thinks Iraqi forces will be ready by June to take full control of security. In making the argument that his military and police could handle security in the country, al-Maliki has routinely said the force could do the job within six months.
White House national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley noted Bush has solicited a separate in-house review of Iraq policy. Bush would probably make any changes or decisions arising from the various reports in ``weeks rather than months,'' Hadley said.
``It's really going to be when the president is comfortable in his own mind as to where he wants to go'' and has coordinated with Iraqi leaders on a ``common plan,'' Hadley said.
The Bush administration's own crisis evaluation of Iraq could provide a different kind of political cover. With at least two sets of recommendations before him, Bush could pick some from the commission chaired by Republican former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., and some from his own advisers.
Hadley spoke as Bush returned from a hastily arranged summit with al-Maliki, who has sometimes had testy relations with his American backers. Bush and his advisers offered warm endorsements of the Shiite leader Thursday, and al-Maliki remains the administration's best hope to build a durable political framework that can govern and protect the country on its own.
Al-Maliki heads the Shiite-led government established following the ouster of Saddam Hussein in a U.S.-led invasion more than three years ago.
The outlines of the panel's expected diplomatic recommendations are not new, but they would represent a major change away from the Bush administration policy of isolating its enemies except in rare instances.
The administration has not ruled out diplomacy with Iran on stabilizing Iraq nor with Syria with the aim of stopping its interference in Lebanon and permitting militia from Syria to go to Iraq to attack allied forces. But the administration has been reluctant to enter talks lest the gesture be seen as reward for what Washington calls bad behavior.
Separately, a former U.S. official said he had been told by the administration that the commission agreed last week to recommend dialogue with the Iranians and Syrians.