The Iraq Study Group Plots New U.S. Policy Course

The bipartisan Iraq Study Group meets with top administration officials to discuss the future of U.S. policy in the country. The group is expected to release its full report on the American approach to Iraq in several weeks.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

As that violence continues in Iraq, much hope is riding on the Iraq Study Group. That bipartisan commission has been charged with assessing the situation in Iraq and formulating future U.S. policy there. The Study Group meets with top Bush administration officials today for a preview.

We turn to NPR National Security Correspondent Jackie NORTHAM. Good morning.

JACKIE NORTHAM: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: What can you tell us about these meetings today?

NORTHAM: Well, the first meeting will include President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Advisor Steve Hadley, together with the 10 members of the Iraq Study Group. As you mentioned, this is a bipartisan commission. It's co-chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker, who is a Republican; and former Indiana Congressman Lee Hamilton, a Democrat. Later in the day the group will also have separate meetings with other senior administration officials, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, National Intelligence Director John Negroponte, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. So, a lot of meetings today.

The Iraq Study Group is not expected to hand over its report - its recommendations - for Iraq today. That's really not expected for a few weeks yet.

MONTAGNE: And what might the group's proposals be? We've had some hints of what they've been talking about.

NORTHAM: That's right, there has been some leaks to the press, that type of thing. You know, there's just a whole range of ideas, in part because many people have had input with the Study Group - experts in the economy, post-conflict resolution, foreign policy, military matters. Some people think the solution needs to be political - give the Iraqi government more time and more support to deal with the violence. There's a broad range of ideas about a military solution - sending in more U.S. advisors to train Iraqi security forces, or increasing the number of American troops for a while, to help quell the violence, help stabilize Baghdad. Some think the U.S. should make a swift withdrawal; others say begin slowly drawing down the troops. And yet others, including the co-chairman, James Baker, look more toward the diplomatic approach, and that includes addressing the Israel-Palestinian conflict. There is also talk of a regional conference of all Iraq's neighbors and starting a dialogue with Iran and Syria, something the Bush administration has so far refused to do.

MONTAGNE: Oh, it has absolutely refused to speak to Iran or Syria directly. Will President Bush go along with this?

NORTHAM: Well, he has said that he's willing to listen to what the Study Group has to say - any good suggestions. You know, the group's members are considered realists, and they have a multilateralist worldview. As I mentioned, President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, will be attending one of these meetings, and other senior administration officials as well. And so far, they've had a completely different outlook on how things should be done. And part of that is not talking to nations such as Syria and Iran.

The Democrats are also divided about what to do. So Renee, again, a lot of different, diverging ideas. Perhaps the Iraq Study Group will help bridge some of those ideas. At the very least, the group can generate a debate that could eventually lead to a consensus about what to do in Iraq.

MONTAGNE: Now, there have been many ideas about how to deal with Iraq that have been floated out there for months now and the real failing situation over there. Why do you think the Iraq Study Group is so important now and might be coming up with ideas that say, you might not have thought the president would countenance even a short while ago?

NORTHAM: There's no guarantee it will. There's a lot of hope it will, but there's no guarantee. You know, the Iraq Study Group was formed by Congress in the spring, simply as a way to bring fresh perspectives for dealing with Iraq. But over the past couple months, as we've seen the violence and the deaths escalate in Iraq and the U.S. options there dwindle, the Iraq Study Group has gained enormous importance. Many people are looking to the group for an answer, what to do in Iraq, what are the options. But so far, there isn't one simple answer. No one knows for sure what will work. It's not even clear that members of the study group can reach a consensus among themselves about what to do. The group can provide some political cover, though, for the president, and that means helping him redefine the mission and redefining the terms of victory.

MONTAGNE: And, the military has also let it be known that it, too, has a group that is conducting a review of Iraq.

NORTHAM: That's right. This one was initiated a couple of months ago, and it's high-ranking generals who are working on their own set of recommendations for how to improve strategy in Iraq. And also there's other national security agencies - are also expected to do their own similar reviews. So a lot of things happening out here, really taking a firm look at what we should be doing in Iraq.

MONTAGNE: Jackie, thank you very much.

NORTHAM: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR National Security Correspondent Jackie Northam.

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