The Iraq Report: Mission, Milestones, Diplomacy

In 2003, James Baker visited the Oval Office after a trip to Europe to seek reduction of Iraq's debt i i

Different Times: In 2003, James Baker visited the Oval Office after a trip to Europe to seek reduction of Iraq's debt. Eric Draper/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Eric Draper/AFP/Getty Images
In 2003, James Baker visited the Oval Office after a trip to Europe to seek reduction of Iraq's debt

Different Times: In 2003, James Baker visited the Oval Office after a trip to Europe to seek reduction of Iraq's debt.

Eric Draper/AFP/Getty Images

The first line of the summary of the ISG report doesn't mince words: "The situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating," it reads.

It's impossible not to read the report as anything other than a clear rebuke of the Bush administration's strategy in Iraq.

To watch its unveiling earlier Wednesday, one couldn't help but notice the irony in seeing former Secretary of State James Baker III advising against a "stay the course solution."

Baker, of course, is the man largely responsible for a process in Florida that led to President Bush's 2000 election victory.

He's an old Bush family friend who has now told the president — in somewhat more polite language — that his Iraq policy has failed. And to salvage the project, the administration has to be prepared to do things it has earlier ruled out: things like talking to Iran and Syria, drawing down U.S. troops in Iraq, and convening a comprehensive Middle East peace summit.

The report is not binding. It's not a piece of legislation and it carries no legal weight. But it cannot be ignored either, because of the combined gravitas of the men and women behind it.

Readers of the report are told, for example, that at this point, "no one can guarantee that any course of action in Iraq will stop sectarian warfare."

We learn from the report's findings that the overwhelming majority of terrorist attacks in Iraq are carried out by sectarian militias. And that — despite repeated insistence from the White House to the contrary — al-Qaida is only involved in a small number of the attacks. And that most of the terrorism is carried out by Iraqis, not foreign fighters.

What the bipartisan commission DOES recommend can be summed up in three words:

Mission, milestones and diplomacy.

According to the report, the United States must change its "primary mission" in Iraq. That will enable U.S. forces to begin a slow but steady withdrawal over the next year. The goal being that by the first quarter of 2008, more than half of all troops currently in Iraq would be back at home.

The idea of a phased and definite draw-down would, according to the report, pressure the Iraqi government to work faster on achieving political goals. At the moment, Iraq's elected government is badly fractured and failing to confront the chaotic sectarian violence. The United States, the report insists, should not give the Iraqi government an "open-ended committment" to remain in the country.

What will prove most controversial, and perhaps difficult for the Bush adminsitration to accept, is the proposal to open direct talks with Iran and Syria. These two countries have a lot of influence in Iraq — whether on the terrorism front or the political one. They also bear a lot of responsibility for the chaos now gripping that country. The panel concludes that without engaging Iran and Syria, Iraq cannot be tamed.

The Bush administration has insisted it will not deal with Iran until the Islamic Republic freezes its uranium-enrichment program — a pre-cursor to building the bomb. But the ISG report recommends dealing with Iran nonetheless.

Same goes for Syria: It's clear that Syrian-backed Hezbollah militants have helped train Iraqi terrorists. Yet the ISG report indicates that Syria can help the United States achieve its long term objectives for Iraq: a country that can govern, sustain and defend itself.

The report also links a resolution for Iraq with the Arab-Israeli conflict. The panel suggests convening a two-track peace process: one, on the Israeli-Palestinian front; the other on the Syria/Lebanon/Israel front. Baker, who famously brought together Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in Madrid in 1991, told reporters that reviving a comprehensive peace process is imperative. Without it, Iraq cannot be pacified.

The White House has hinted it will follow the recommendations of the panel. But as the drafters acknowledged, it will take time to implement all 79 recommendations. And the Bush administration — with two years left in office — may not have enough time.

Iraq Study Group: U.S. Policy 'Not Working'

Iraq Study Group Co-Chairmen James A. Baker III, left, and Lee Hamilton

Iraq Study Group Co-Chairmen James A. Baker III, left, and Lee Hamilton conduct a news conference on Capitol Hill, Dec. 6, 2006. Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images

Find out what President Bush and leaders on Capitol Hill had to say about the commission's recommendations.

A long-awaited report by the Iraq Study Group paints a bleak picture of the situation in Iraq. The 10-member, bipartisan panel says the situation in Iraq is "grave and deteriorating" and could provoke a slide into chaos. The report, handed to President Bush and Congress Wednesday morning, lays out 79 recommendations to try to pull Iraq back from the brink.

The opening line sets a sober, grim tone: "There is no magic formula to solve the problems of Iraq."

It describes those problems as enormous: Violence in Iraq, fed by an insurgency, militias and crime, is increasing in scope and lethality. The Iraqi military and security forces are ineffective and corrupt. About 2,900 U.S. soldiers are dead so far, with another 21,000 wounded. There's no sign the situation will change anytime soon.

The panel's co-chairman, James Baker, the Republican who once served as a U.S. secretary of state, makes it clear the Bush administration's handling of the war is not working.

"We do not recommend a 'stay the course' solution," Baker said Wednesday. "In our opinion, that approach is no longer viable. "

In its report, the study group lays out three key recommendations.

First, the United States must help Iraqis take responsibility for their own destiny.

Former Rep. Lee Hamilton, the Democrat from Indiana who serves as the other co-chairman of the group, says that the Bush administration must send a strong message to Iraqi leaders to make substantial progress on national reconciliation, security and improving daily lives of Iraqis.

"If the Iraqi government does not make substantial progress toward the achievement of milestones, the United States then should reduce its political, military or economic support for the Iraqi government," Hamilton said.

A second recommendation calls for a renewed, immediate push by the United States on the diplomatic front, including reviving Arab-Israeli peace talks and opening a dialogue with Iran and Syria.

The Bush administration has steadfastly refused to enter into talks with either country. Hamilton says both countries have enormous influence in the region and a lot of impact in Iraq.

"We will be criticized, I'm sure, for talking with our adversaries," Hamilton said. "But I do not see how you solve these problems without talking to them."

Hamilton and Baker are skeptical that Iran will come to the negotiating table. Baker holds out more hope for dealing with Syria's leaders.

"They could... be in a position to help us and might want to help us," he said. "But we're specific in the report. There must be 10 or 11 or 12 things... that we will be asking of Syria... We're talking about tough diplomacy."

And the study group also recommends that the United States make a fundamental change in its military operations by gradually shifting its troops from combat missions to training and advising the Iraqi army.

The commission suggests a five-fold increase in the number of U.S. troops embedded to train Iraqis. That would mean 20,000 U.S. trainers instead of the current 4,000. If all goes well, the report suggests, combat troops could begin leaving Iraq in early 2008.

Study group member Charles Robb — the Democrat who served Virginia as a U.S. senator and governor — says "embedding our forces at greater levels in the Iraqi military" will create "more capacity, more trust, more capability in the Iraqi forces."

Robb says a number of U.S. military officials agree that more trainers are needed.

The Pentagon, State Department and the National Security Council are due to release Iraq strategy reviews sometime in the next few weeks. President Bush has said he will look at all options before making any decision on Iraq.

Panel members on the Iraq Study Group said their plan didn't offer any guarantees, but that it would certainly improve the chances for success in Iraq.

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