Iraq Study Group meets to consider recommendations; Congress showing increasing impatience

Monday, November 27th 2006, 8:38 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said Monday that Iraq is close to civil war, as the Bush administration stepped up diplomatic efforts to stabilize the wartorn country.

Annan talked to reporters in New York as members of the Iraq Study Group were to discuss recommendations for changes in U.S. war strategy. President Bush left for a NATO summit in Europe, but much attention was directed toward a meeting he'll have later in the week with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Amman, Jordan.

Asked by reporters at the U.N. if Iraq is in a civil war now, Annan replied, "I think given the developments on the ground, unless something is done drastically and urgently to arrest the deteriorating situation, we could be there. In fact we are almost there."

Sectarian violence in Iraq is at its worst level in the roughly 3 1/2 years since a U.S.-led coalition invaded the country and toppled Saddam Hussein. Bush's summit this week comes in the wake of talks that Vice President Dick Cheney held over the weekend in the region and as members of the special study commission mull recommendations.

The New York Times reported in Monday's editions that a draft report by the study panel led by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III recommends aggressive regional diplomacy, including talks with Iran and Syria.

Anonymous officials who had seen the draft report told the Times it does not specify any timetables for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, although the commissioners are expected to debate the feasibility of such timetables.

The panel is expected to release its findings and recommendations in December.

Appearing Monday on ABC's "Good Morning America," former President Jimmy Carter said that "at this point everybody is waiting" for the report. "My guess is that President Bush will take their advice as much as he possibly can," he added.

Carter said he would agree with any call for direct U.S. talks with Iran and Syria over Iraq, adding: "This is one of the most counterproductive policies that I've ever known, ... not to talk to the people who disagree with you unless they agree in advance to everything you demand."

Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a potential presidential contender in 2008, said "it's not too late for the United States to extricate itself honorably from an impending disaster in Iraq."

"If the president fails to build a bipartisan foundation for an exit strategy, America will pay a high price for this blunder _ one that we will have difficulty recovering from in the years ahead," Hagel wrote in Sunday's Washington Post.

As the U.S. involvement in Iraq surpassed the length of America's participation in World War II, lawmakers have dwindling confidence in the U.S.-supported Iraqi government.

Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell, a spokesman for coalition forces in Iraq, declined Monday to say whether Iraq had plunged into civil war.

"No. What we have right now... What I would tell you is, ... we have violence that are at unacceptable levels at the moment," he said in an interview from Baghdad with Associated Press Radio. "It had been on a downward trend for about four solid weeks."

"The vast majority of the citizens here want to live in a peaceful secure city. That's what their desire is," Caldwell said.

The Bush-Maliki summit on Wednesday and Thursday, coupled with Cheney's trip to Saudi Arabia on Saturday, is evidence of the administration's stepped-up effort to bring stability to the region.

The host of the meeting, Jordan's King Abdullah, said Sunday the problems in the Middle East go beyond the war in Iraq. He said much of the region soon could become engulfed in violence unless the central issues are addressed quickly.

The king said he was hopeful the leaders will find a way to reduce the level of violence. "We hope there will be something dramatic. The challenges, obviously, in front of both of them are immense," he said.

Iraq's leaders promised Sunday to track down those responsible for the recent attacks, and al-Maliki urged his national unity government of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds to curb the violence by stopping their public disputes.

The Iraqi prime minister is under pressure from Shiite politicians loyal to the radical anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr who have threatened to boycott parliament and the Cabinet if al-Maliki meets with Bush.

"This is all political posturing. It's all red herring. It's an anti-threat. This is a very stable government," responded Iraq's national security adviser, Mouwafak al-Rubaie. He said he had no doubt the prime minister would meet with Bush in Jordan.