Most U.S. Forces Should Quit Iraq by 2008, Panel Says
Ken Fireman and Janine Zacharia
The U.S. should aim to withdraw most of its combat forces from Iraq by the first quarter of 2008, engage Iran and Syria diplomatically and begin a new push for a comprehensive peace between Israelis and Arabs, a bipartisan commission recommended.
``The current approach is not working, and the ability of the United States to influence events is diminishing,'' former Representative Lee Hamilton, a leader of the Iraq Study Group, told a Washington news conference today. Hamilton said the cost of the conflict to the U.S. could rise to ``well over'' $1 trillion from about $400 billion now.
The panel characterized the situation in Iraq as ``grave and deteriorating'' and recommended that more U.S. troops be directed toward training and supporting Iraqi forces. That effort should be coupled with a diplomatic initiative to enlist help from neighboring countries to stabilize Iraq, the panel urged.
The report emphasized the need for political reconciliation among warring Iraqi factions -- and said if they don't make ``substantial progress'' toward that goal, the U.S. ``should reduce its political, military, or economic support for the Iraqi government.''
As the training moves forward, the U.S. would be able to begin withdrawing combat forces, although significant numbers will need to remain in Iraq for further training, protection of forces and strikes against insurgents, the panel said.
``It is clear that the Iraqi government will need assistance from the U.S. for some time to come, especially in carrying out security responsibilities,'' said the report by the commission, which is headed by Hamilton, a Democrat, and by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, a Republican.
``Yet the U.S. must make it clear to the Iraqi government that the U.S. could carry out its plans, including planned redeployments, even if the Iraqi government did not implement their planned changes,'' the report said. ``The United States must not make an open-ended commitment to keep large numbers of American troops deployed in Iraq.''
The long-awaited report comes at a time of mounting sectarian violence in Iraq, rising U.S. and Iraqi casualties and growing political pressure on President George W. Bush to change course. Its recommendations may be calibrated to provide Bush with a path to do that, without appearing to surrender to his critics.
Bush said today he would take the advice of the Iraq Study Group ``seriously,'' and he urged an end to ``political bickering'' over the war.
On the issue of whether and when to withdraw U.S. forces, the report partially endorses the strategy urged by many administration critics -- to set a timetable for a pullback as a means of pressuring Iraqi leaders to reach a political compromise -- while adding several qualifications.
In the near term, the U.S. should ``significantly increase'' its troops involved in training and support of Iraqi forces to facilitate an eventual takeover of security responsibilities by those forces, the report said.
The number of U.S. soldiers embedded with Iraqi units should increase to as many as 20,000 from roughly 3,000 or 4,000 now, drawing from existing combat brigades, former Defense Secretary William Perry, a panel member, told reporters.
As that takeover proceeds, the U.S. would then be able to withdraw ``all combat brigades not necessary for force protection,'' and this goal could be achieved by the first quarter of 2008 ``subject to unexpected developments in the security situation on the ground,'' the report said.
Talk to `Enemies'
Even if this goal is reached, some U.S. troops would remain for ``rapid-reaction and special operation'' activities against the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq, further training and support of Iraqi units, force protection and intelligence, it said.
The report called on the U.S. to begin a diplomatic offensive by Dec. 31 aimed at persuading Iraq's neighbors to foster stability in the country. Syria and Iran should be included, it said.
Baker said it is essential to ``talk to your enemies, not just your friends.''
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, in a telephone interview from Morocco, said his government should take the lead in any discussions with Iran. ``It's better for the Iraqis to engage them'' in a dialogue on Iraqi security, Zebari said, reflecting a message he said Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki delivered to Bush in Amman, Jordan, last week.
Progress in the Middle East also depends on a ``sustained'' commitment to a two-state solution for Israel and a future Palestine and to resolving Israeli differences with Lebanon and Syria, the Iraq panel concluded. The commitment must include talks among Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Palestinians who accept Israel's right to exist, it said.
Israel should return the Golan Heights to Syria with a U.S. security guarantee that could include an international force on the border, the Iraq panel recommended. President Bill Clinton failed to reach such an agreement in 2000 peace talks. The area was captured by Israel in the 1967 war with Arab countries.
Syria would be expected to cooperate with investigations into political killings in Lebanon and stop supporting the Hezbollah militia that has fought Israel.
Dangers of Deterioration
The study group described dangers that may arise if Iraq's condition deteriorates. The government could collapse, warfare between Sunni and Shiite Muslim communities could spread and al- Qaeda could ``expand its base of operations,'' the panel said.
``Our most important recommendations call for new and enhanced diplomatic and political efforts in Iraq and the region, and a change in the primary mission of U.S. forces in Iraq that will enable the United States to begin to move its combat forces out of Iraq responsibly,'' the report said.
Attacks against U.S. and Iraqi security forces ``are persistent and growing,'' the Iraq Study Group said. October was the deadliest month for U.S. forces since January 2005, with 102 Americans killed, and a United Nations tally found that at least 3,709 Iraqi civilians died in violence.
Daily attacks on Iraqi security forces were more than double the level in January, and attacks on civilians were four times as high in that period. Almost 2,900 U.S. military personnel have died in the war in Iraq and about 22,000 have been wounded.
Estimates for the final cost of the war run as high as $2 trillion when caring for veterans and replacing damaged or destroyed equipment are added to the operational costs of the war effort, the report said. Currently, costs are running about $8 billion a month, it said.
Initial reaction from lawmakers to the panel's assessment divided along partisan lines, with Democrats saying it validates their long-stated belief that a change in course is needed and Republicans saying they look to the report as one source of guidance for improving the situation.
The incoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Michigan Democrat Carl Levin, said the report was ``another blow at the policy of `staying the course' that this administration has followed.''
Levin, who plans to hold hearings on Iraq early next year, said the panel endorsed changing course in Iraq ``in a number of important ways.'' These include using force reductions to press Iraqi leaders toward settling political differences, an idea Levin has championed.
`Disaster' in Iraq
One Democrat was pessimistic about whether the report will make a difference.
``My view is that no matter what happens in Iraq, it is going to be unmitigated disaster,'' said Representative David Obey, a Wisconsin Democrat and the next chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
House Majority Leader John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, called the report ``constructive,'' while saying it was not the only source of ideas for improving the situation.
``There are also other ongoing reviews that will make recommendations and provide counsel to the administration for moving forward,'' Boehner said in a prepared statement. ``We must not retreat from our obligations to help stabilize Iraq, nor should we give in to the notion that it is in our interests to strike deals with our enemies.''
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