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Iraq Policy 'No Longer Viable'

Panel Advises Bush To Wage 'Diplomatic Offensive'

The report recommends a greater U.S. advisory role and adds to disengagement pressure.

December 07, 2006|Paul Richter | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Bush administration policies have set off a "slide toward chaos" in Iraq, a bipartisan national commission declared Wednesday in a major reappraisal that challenges President Bush's view of the war and builds new pressure for disengagement.

In uncompromising and dismal terms, the panel said the continuing deterioration in Iraq could inflame the entire region in a deadly war that would further curtail U.S. influence throughout the world. It issued 79 recommendations that counter many hardened administration stances, such as holding talks with Syria and Iran, and more forcefully pushing Iraqi leaders toward political advances.

"The current approach is not working, and the ability of the United States to influence events is diminishing," said former Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), who leads the 10-member Iraq Study Group with former Secretary of State James A. Baker III. "Many Americans are understandably dissatisfied. Our ship of state has hit rough waters. It must now chart a new way forward."

The panel's report, coming after a midterm election widely seen as a repudiation of Bush's war policy, is certain to further transform the growing national debate on Iraq -- with Democrats and many Republicans agreeing Wednesday that its conclusions pointed to the urgent need for new strategies.

But even as pressure grows on the White House to change course, Bush stopped short of any immediate endorsement of the recommendations. The president has signaled that he is considering strategy proposals from a number of sources, but told study group members in a morning meeting that he viewed their report as "unique" because of the panel's bipartisan composition.

The commission's findings were issued on a day when the military reported 10 U.S. service members were killed in Iraq, the highest daily toll in weeks and a reminder of the results of a war policy now widely seen as failing.

The report also came a day after Robert M. Gates, who will be sworn in as secretary of Defense this month, told Congress that America was not winning the war -- and just days after disclosure of a memo by outgoing Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld in which he said U.S. strategy required a "major adjustment."

In the panel's 96-page report, it grouped its 79 recommendations under three main proposals: a "diplomatic offensive" to stabilize Iraq, including talks with Syria and Iran; a shift in the role of U.S. troops from combat to an advisory function, allowing the withdrawal of nearly all 15 combat brigades by early 2008; and an effort to prod Iraqi leaders toward political progress, withholding military, economic and diplomatic help if necessary.

The report said the administration should set benchmarks for progress by Iraqis and should make clear that the mission is "not open-ended."

The panel's five Republicans and five Democrats urged the recommendations be instituted as a set.

"Our three most important recommendations are equally important and reinforce one another," Hamilton said.

For Bush to accept the recommendations, he would have to change course on a number of key issues. He has largely ruled out talks with Syria and Iran, and resisted proposals for setting timetables for Iraqi government progress.

And the president has shown no interest in pressing for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, as the report urged, until the Palestinians establish a government that wins American approval and take other steps.


Criticizing Iraq conditions

The report, approved by such conservatives as former Reagan administration Atty. Gen. Edwin M. Meese III and former Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.), was striking in its harsh critique of conditions in Iraq nearly four years after the U.S.-led invasion.

While the White House continues to point to signs of progress, the report emphasized the "great suffering" of ordinary Iraqis, persistent disorder, government inefficiency and corruption, economic setbacks, and the weaknesses of the Iraqi military and police.

The report criticized the reconstruction effort -- saying that among U.S. government agencies, "there are no clear lines establishing who is in charge" -- and faulted Iraq's neighbors and international donor countries for doing little to help.

It noted that the war had left about 2,900 Americans dead and 21,000 wounded, with costs projected to rise to $2 trillion.

"The United States is spending $2 billion a week," commission members wrote. "Our ability to respond to other international crises is constrained. A majority of the American people are soured on this war. This level of expense is not sustainable over an extended period, especially when progress is not being made."

The report also found that the U.S. military was much worse for the experience, countering years of more favorable assessments by Defense officials.

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