Analysts: Iraq Chaos Demands Urgent Response

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Members of the Iraq Study Group are expected to make their recommendations on the direction of U.S. involvement in the next few weeks. But analysts say that events in Iraq are moving so quickly that the proposed recommendations may have lost their relevance by the time they are revealed.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

JOHN YDSTIE, host:

And I'm John Ydstie, sitting in for Steve Inskeep.

Members of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group are keeping quiet about the nature and the content of their last two days of debate. The 10-member commission is charged with reviewing U.S. policy in Iraq. The Group's recommendations are expected in the next few weeks, along with similar reports from the Pentagon, the White House, and the National Security Agency. But events in Iraq - in the region - are moving very quickly, raising questions about how relevant any proposed recommendations may be.

NPR's National Security Correspondent, Jackie Northam, reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM: There was a deliberate, well-executed decision by members of the Iraq Study Group to keep exact details of their two-day debate quiet. But earlier leaks to the press, by members of the commission and some of the experts it talked with, provide a sketch of what recommendations the Group could make in its report. There's likely to be a consensus on a proposal to foster a dialogue with Iran and Syria as part of efforts to find a political solution in Iraq. Where the commission members seem to diverge is on the military question; whether to send in more military advisors or troops, or to begin drawing down American forces.

Les Gelb, the president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, says the Iraq Study Group is wrestling with some very difficult questions.

Mr. LES GELB (President Emeritus, Council on Foreign Relations) That is, what kind of real influence do we have now, to shape events in Iraq, or is the situation beyond our control? What exactly can we do at this stage? What's feasible?

NORTHAM: Gelb says the problem engaging that is the situation is quickly spinning out of control. Hundreds of Iraqis have been killed in sectarian violence, just in the past week.

Ken Pollack, with the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, says whatever strategy is accepted must be put into place quickly.

Mr. KEN POLLACK (Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institution): The ground is eroding under our feet in Iraq, and this is one of the great problems. And it does seem to be moving faster and faster. This unfortunately, is the historical course of many civil wars.

NORTHAM: There are other factors at play which could complicate whatever recommendations the Iraq Study Group, or the other panels, put in their reports. Iraq's neighbors are taking action on their own. Last week, Syria restored diplomatic ties with Iraq; and this week, Iraq's president, Jalal Talabani, met with his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Nora Bensahel, a senior political scientist at the Rand Corporation, says this diplomatic outreach by Syria and Iran may be political posturing. Bensahel says it may be a way of getting ahead of the most likely recommendations by the Iraq Study Group. That is, using a regional framework to help establish stability in Iraq.

Mr. NORA BENSAHEL (Senior Political Scientist, Rand Corporation): Perhaps one of the reasons is, in a way, to try to get ahead of the United States so that efforts to restore those ties and build a cooperative regional solution aren't seen as having followed from what the United States said should happen?

NORTHAM: Both Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Khamenei said Iran wants to help Iraq, calling that a religious and humanitarian duty. Iraq President Talabani, in turn, said his government was in dire need of Iran's help in curbing the increasing violence.

The Brookings Institution's Pollack, says Talabani's visit to Iran should not start alarm bells ringing. The Iraqis have had high-level contact with the Iranians since the fall of Saddam Hussein. And, Pollack says, the Iraqis have to stay on Iran's good side.

Mr. POLLACK: So I wouldn't take Talabani's meeting as a sign that somehow the Kurds or the Iraqis are tilting toward Iran. This is a very important neighbor, it's a very important relationship to them. And what's more, because the situation in Iraq has become so grave, they need to find help wherever they can do it.

NORTHAM: Any attempt to stabilize Iraq is a good thing, says Robert Malley, the Middle East program director at the International Crisis Group. But, Malley says, countries such as Syria and Iran still put their own interests first.

Mr. ROBERT MALLEY (Middle East Program Director, International Crisis Group): Until they see a different U.S. policy in the region - a different U.S. policy towards them - they're not about to be advocating or pushing for the kind of stability in Iraq that would be necessary to meet our needs and the needs of all Iraqis.

NORTHAM: The Iraq Study Group policy recommendations are now being drafted and will land on the president's desk sometime next month.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

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Study Group Weighs Options for Stabilizing Iraq

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Former Secretary of State James Baker (left) and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton i

Former Secretary of State James Baker (left) speaks to reporters as former Democratic congressman Lee Hamilton looks on, Sep. 19, 2006. Baker and Hamilton are co-chairmen of the Iraq Study Group. Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
Former Secretary of State James Baker (left) and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton

Former Secretary of State James Baker (left) speaks to reporters as former Democratic congressman Lee Hamilton looks on, Sep. 19, 2006. Baker and Hamilton are co-chairmen of the Iraq Study Group.

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

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The Group's Focus

The study group will examine four broad topics:

  • The strategic environment in and around Iraq;
  • Key challenges to enhancing security within Iraq;
  • Political developments within Iraq and formation of the new government;
  • Iraq's economy and reconstruction.
  • Source: Iraq Study Group

The Group's Members

  • Co-Chairman James Baker, former secretary of state under President George H.W. Bush
  • Co-Chairman Lee Hamilton, former chairman of the House Foreign Affairs and Intelligence committees
  • Lawrence Eagleburger, former Secretary of State under President George H.W. Bush
  • Vernon Jordan, former adviser to President Clinton
  • Edwin Meese, former attorney general under President Reagan
  • Sandra Day O'Connor, former Supreme Court justice
  • Leon Panetta, former White House chief of staff under President Clinton
  • William Perry, former defense secretary under President Clinton
  • Charles Robb, former U.S. senator (D-VA)
  • Alan Simpson, former U.S. senator (R-WY)

A bipartisan group is holding several high-level meetings this week with top policy makers in the U.S. and abroad, as it prepares to finalize its much-anticipated report recommending fresh approaches to the situation in Iraq.

The 10-member Iraq Study Group held closed-door talks with President Bush on Monday, as well as with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Vice President Dick Cheney and other policy makers in the administration. On Tuesday, panel members held a video conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, a major U.S. ally in Iraq.

After meeting with the group, President Bush promised that he is "not going to prejudge" the panel's recommendations, which are expected next month. But he did caution against a sudden, major shift in strategy.

"I believe that it's important for us to succeed in Iraq, not only for our security but for the security of the Middle East," he said, adding, "I'm looking forward to interesting ideas."

The Iraq Study Group is co-chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker, who has close ties to the Bush family and served in the Cabinet of President George H.W. Bush, and by former Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton. When the two men returned from Baghdad in September, they warned that the task before them — coming up with recommendations on how to bring peace to Iraq — would be extremely difficult.

But the Democratic sweep of Congress may have made the group's job easier. The elections showed a popular desire for a policy shift in Iraq and provided political cover for President Bush, whose first major move after the votes were counted was to oust Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense.

The study group was formed in March at the request of Congress, which called for fresh eyes on the current and prospective situation in Iraq. Their review has focused on four broad topics: security; political developments; economy and reconstruction; and the strategic environment in Iraq and the region.

The panel includes several former officials of President George H.W. Bush's administration who have been openly critical of the current Bush administration's Iraq war plan — including Baker and former CIA Director Robert Gates, the man tapped to replace Rumsfeld. Gates resigned from the group after his nomination.

The panel is not expected to deliver its final recommendations to President Bush and Congress for several more weeks. But media reports provide some clues as to what its proposal might include:

Talks with Syria and Iran: The study group is expected to approach the Iraq problem through a regional framework. One expected recommendation will be for a regional conference of all Iraq's neighbors who have a vested interest in making sure the violence doesn't spill over their borders. Already, Saudi Arabia is planning to build a 500-mile wall between it and Iraq.

Perhaps the most controversial recommendation, signaling the broadest policy shift, will be a call for talks between the United States and Iran and Syria. The White House accuses those two nations of helping fuel instability in neighboring Iraq, and supporting terrorism, and has consistently rejected the idea of direct talks with them. Many members of the Iraq group are considered pragmatists with a multilateralist worldview, who believe that dialogue is often the best route to conflict resolution. This week, British Prime Minister Tony Blair — whose country has sent more troops to Iraq than any other except the United States — endorsed the idea of engaging Syria and Iran.

Baker has said that enlisting the help of Syria and Iran could also pay dividends in the broader Middle East peace talks, because both groups have influence with the Islamist groups Hamas in the Palestinian territories and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

"My view is you don't talk just to your friends," Baker told NPR's Terry Gross in early October. "You talk as well to your enemies. You need to talk to your enemies in order to move forward diplomatically toward peace. And talking to someone, in my opinion, at least, my personal opinion, does not equate to appeasement."

U.S. Military Role in Iraq: Baker's public comments suggest the group is unlikely to endorse an immediate withdrawal from Iraq. "The choice really should not be one between picking up — i.e. cutting and running — and/or just staying the course," Baker told Gross. "I mean, there are other options other than just those two."

Those options could include a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops to pressure the Iraqi government to take a greater role in stemming the violence; temporarily boosting U.S. troop levels; and sending in more U.S. advisers to train Iraqi security forces.

Iraqi Government: Inducing the Iraqi government to step up its role in controlling the chaos — by disarming militias and negotiation compromises among warring Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds — is another key obstacle facing the United States.

Baker has said that he's against partitioning the country along sectarian lines — an approach favored by Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE). Baker's co-chairman, Lee Hamilton, warns that the Iraqi government must act quickly or risk losing the support of the Iraqi and American people.

"The government of Iraq needs to show its own citizens soon, and the citizens of the United States, that it is deserving of continued support," Hamilton said in September. He says that in the next few months, it's critical that the Iraqi government show progress in securing Baghdad, quelling sectarian strife and delivering basic services.

Proposals might include deadlines for the U.S. Iraqi leadership by which it must show significant improvement in its capabilities. That would help pave the way to recommend major U.S. policy changes in the event those goals are not met.

Economy and Reconstruction: The study group has enlisted the insights of experts in the fields of economics and reconstruction. A healthy economy (driven by oil receipts), high employment, and the rebuilding of Iraq's crumbling infrastructure are seen as crucial to the country's future. Until now, security has hampered much of the rebuilding efforts in Iraq, and violence is driving hundreds of thousands of people from their homes and jobs.

Whatever the group's final recommendations, Baker has made it clear that they will reflect a consensus opinion. But that could be difficult to achieve, given the various political and military advisers, from academia, the government and the private sector — who've provided input to the group. And there's no guarantee that President Bush will follow the group's recommendations.

Compiled from NPR staff reports.

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