U.S. panel warns about Iraq security

Concerns raised that country's new leaders aren't taking action, risk losing support of people

September 20, 2006|By Peter Spiegel | Peter Spiegel,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- The chairmen of a closely watched commission evaluating U.S. policy in Iraq said yesterday that the government in Baghdad risks losing the support of both the Iraqi people and the American public unless it brings security and public services to the Iraqi people within the next three months.

Former Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, co-chairman of the Iraq Study Group with former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, pointed out that the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been in place for six months and indicated the commission was disappointed with al-Maliki's lack of progress.

"No one can expect miracles, but the people of Iraq have the right to expect immediate action," Hamilton said at a Washington news conference. "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."

The comments, which Baker said he endorsed, echo sentiments that increasingly are being expressed in private by senior officials in the Bush administration who are concerned that al-Maliki's rhetoric on confronting sectarian militias and moving toward national reconciliation is not backed by concrete action.

The Bush administration had high hopes that al-Maliki, who emerged as the head of Iraq's first elected government in January and had been seen as a stronger leader than his predecessor, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, would move to shore up the faction-riven Iraqi government and purge key ministries of corrupt and militia-linked officials. But violence in the country, particularly in Baghdad, has escalated.

"Time is short, the level of violence is great, the margins for error are narrow," Hamilton said. "The government of Iraq must act."

The Iraq Study Group was formed this year at the suggestion of members of Congress. Yesterday's public appearance by Hamilton and Baker was the first by members of the commission, which has been the subject of speculation within foreign policy circles over whether it will recommend a new course for Iraq policy.

Other commission members include Vernon E. Jordan, who was an adviser to former President Bill Clinton, and retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

Baker said he intends to make the commission's recommendations public after delivering them to President Bush and Congress. But he added that despite rising concern over a full-scale Iraqi civil war, the commission would not issue a report until after November's midterm election.

"We think it's more important, frankly, to make sure that whatever report we bring forward is taken - to the extent that we can take it - out of domestic politics," Baker said. "A lot more things will happen between now and probably the time after the election, but we nevertheless think it is extremely important that this not be seen to be somehow be a political exercise."

Baker's close relationship with foreign policy moderates - many of whom, such as former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, worked under President Bush's father and have been critical of the war effort - has led to speculation that Baker will push for a shift in Iraq policy.

Baker acknowledged the group was planning to meet with Syria's foreign minister today on the sidelines of a gathering of heads of state at the United Nations in New York and was in the process of scheduling a meeting with a senior Iranian representative. But he denied that his appointment, while tacitly approved by the White House, was a signal of any major shift by the Bush administration.

The group released a list of Iraqi and American officials it has met with since forming in March, which included nearly every top military and government official in Washington and Baghdad, where the group traveled two weeks ago for four days of consultations.

The meetings have included sessions with al-Maliki and Bush, as well as Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, the commander of all U.S. troops in the region.

They also have met with a representative of radical anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, as well as vocal critics of the war effort like retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, former U.S. commander in the region.

Peter Spiegel writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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