WASHINGTON — As President Bush headed to an overseas summit on the Middle East, a federal commission searching for a bipartisan approach to the Iraq war met Monday in Washington to begin working on its final report.
The 10-member Iraq Study Group, headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), adjourned Monday evening without announcing any agreements or issuing any public comment after its daylong closed-session meeting.
The group, which hopes to issue its report before the Christmas holidays, is expected to meet again today and could extend its deliberations into Wednesday, officials said.
Iraq Study Group members hope to reach a bipartisan consensus, because such an agreement presumably would carry more weight with policymakers and the public. So although panel members have said they are eager to complete their final report, they are unsure how much time will be needed.
For instance, panel members say there is wide agreement among the five Republicans and five Democrats on trying to engage Iran and Syria in talks about Iraq in hopes of helping stabilize the war-torn country. Baker has signaled his own support for that approach in interviews.
But commission members have been sharply divided on whether to begin an American troop withdrawal.
The idea of a "phased withdrawal" has been publicly embraced by many leading Democrats, and several Democrats on the panel share the view that after nearly four years, the U.S. deployment should begin to wind down.
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, who will be chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when Democrats take control of Congress next year, said that to be successful, the study commission must reach agreement on three key issues: troop deployments, internal Iraq politics and the role of neighboring countries such as Iran and Syria.
"If the Baker-Hamilton commission addresses these three issues in detail, it can meet Americans' growing expectations," Biden said Monday. "If it doesn't, it risks forgoing the bipartisan support we need for any plan to leave Iraq responsibly, without trading a dictator for chaos."
The Iraq Study Group, formed by several Washington think tanks with the approval of Congress and the White House, began its work in the spring with relatively little visibility.
But expectations have risen steadily over the months amid concerns that Iraq's civil war is intensifying and U.S. policies are faltering.
However, few in Washington expect the group to uncover solutions that have not already been widely considered.
As the group studies the Iraq war, meanwhile, Bush has turned to his own team for new ideas. Senior Pentagon, State Department and White House officials are reconsidering familiar options and searching for new ones.
Bush's in-house team is expected to report back in the next few weeks, meaning he could have a complete set of options from which to choose by the end of the year.