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Bipartisan study group wraps up talks on Iraq

The Nation

The members find consensus, if not a quick fix, for a report likely to take a middle course.

November 30, 2006|Paul Richter | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A blue-ribbon study panel on Iraq completed deliberations Wednesday and announced plans to release a report next week that is expected to reject both a large U.S. troop increase and a quick U.S. withdrawal.

The final report of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, to be issued Wednesday, will be what those close to the group described as a centrist document that offers a blunt critique of Iraq's worsening situation while calling for a continued -- though not indefinite -- American commitment.

Democratic and Republican panel members have complained privately of political pressure. But the five Democrats and five Republicans, led by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), reached agreement in final rounds of meetings.

"They had a lot of difficult issues to resolve ... they believe they have reached a consensus," said an associate of one panel member who discussed the deliberations on condition of anonymity, adding that the report would provide "a very candid assessment of the situation."

The work of the panel, organized in the spring, has gained steadily in importance alongside the rising death toll in Iraq, continuing U.S. casualties and Democratic victories in the midterm election that intensified pressure on President Bush to adopt a new strategy.

Growing anxiety over the war lifted expectations that the study group would offer a dramatic solution -- and the expectations have become a burden to the panel members and to the Bush administration.

"People are looking at us for a, quote, solution," former Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.), a panel member, said this week. "Not that we're not going to do a good job -- but if they think this noble group of 10 are going to solve this issue, I think people are doing a little bit of heavy breathing.... I think expectations of our group are seriously overrated."

The panel was created -- through four Washington think tanks with the approval of Congress and the White House -- to provide "fresh eyes" for U.S. involvement. But it has come to be seen as a final attempt to extricate the country from a quagmire.

Panel members are worried that their advice will disappoint, while administration officials fear it will fuel criticism of their handling of the war.

"The expectations have reached mythic proportions," said another person involved in the panel's work, who also spoke on condition of anonymity.

Iraq Study Group members and others involved in the work note that all of the major recommendations considered had serious drawbacks, and that most of the possible answers have been under discussion by the Bush administration.

Bush has indicated that he is likely to resist two expected recommendations: negotiating with Iran and Syria, and pressing a new Israeli-Palestinian peace effort at a time when the militant group Hamas dominates the Palestinian government.

The administration, meanwhile, also has scrambled for several months to generate new ideas to enable Bush to assert that his team has not been idle and to dilute the importance of the panel's upcoming recommendations.

Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged Wednesday that the Pentagon had brought in a group of midlevel officers in September to develop ideas that would stand as a response to the panel's recommendations.

"Secretary Baker and Congressman Hamilton's group are meeting, and they have a very strong body of individuals who are thinking through this problem," Pace said.

"Those ideas will be fed to the president, and others will too, so we need to be part of the dialogue and give our best military advice."

Some panel members believe that the Bush administration's new search for answers is a sign that their work has been useful.

"Before the report is even out, it has produced some action inside the administration," said the associate of the panel member.

But some experts who provided advice to the panel said they believed the panel may be aware of the limits of what it can recommend.

Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA officer now with the American Enterprise Institute, said he suspected that the strongest sentiment inside the group -- or at least in its leadership -- was "one of being pinned by reality."

With Bush likely to resist two key recommendations, the only real question, Gerecht said in an e-mail response, was whether Bush would decide "to throw enough troop strength at Baghdad to make a difference."

Another expert advisor, former State Department intelligence official Wayne White, said the panel also faced the question of whether its advice may be coming too late to do much good.

White said that he and other experts convinced the panel that it should complete its report by the end of this year, and not wait until next spring, the original deadline date, because of the deterioration of Iraq.

Even a December release "may not be in time," said White. "The situation on the ground is, frankly, slipping out of control."

*

paul.richter@latimes.com

Times staff writers Doyle McManus and Peter Spiegel in Washington contributed to this report.

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