Republican chief of panel on Iraq hints at changes

October 09, 2006

WASHINGTON -- James A. Baker III, the Republican co-chairman of a bipartisan panel reassessing Iraq strategy for President Bush, said yesterday that he expected that the panel would depart from Bush's repeated calls to "stay the course," and he strongly suggested that the White House enter direct talks with countries it has so far kept at arm's length, including Iran and Syria.

"I believe in talking to your enemies," he said in an interview on ABC's This Week, noting that he made 15 trips to Damascus, Syria, while serving Bush's father as secretary of state.

"It's got to be hard-nosed, it's got to be determined," Baker said. "You don't give away anything. But in my view, it's not appeasement to talk to your enemies."

Bush had refused to deal with Iran until last spring, when he declared that the United States would join negotiations with the country if it suspended enriching nuclear fuel. Iran has so far refused. Contacts with Syria and North Korea also have been sharply limited.

But Baker's "Iraq Study Group," created last March, with the encouragement of some members of Congress, to come up with new ideas on Iraq strategy, has already talked to representatives of Iran and Syria about Iraq's future, he said.

His comments yesterday offered the first glimmer of what other members of his study group, in interviews over the past two weeks, have described as an effort to find a politically face-saving way for Bush to extract the United States slowly from the war.

"I think it's fair to say our commission believes that there are alternatives between the stated alternatives, the ones that are out there in the political debate, of `stay the course' and `cut and run,'" Baker said.

He explicitly rejected a rapid withdrawal from Iraq, saying that that would only invite Iran, Syria and "even our friends in the gulf" to fill the power vacuum.

He also dismissed, as largely unworkable, a proposal by Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to decentralize Iraq and give the country's three major sectarian groups, the Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis, their own regions, distributing oil revenue to all. Baker said he had concluded "there's no way to draw lines" between those three groups in Iraq's major cities, where members of all of Iraq's ethnic groups are intermingled. According to White House officials and commission members, Baker has been talking to Bush and his national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, on a regular basis. Those colleagues say he is unlikely to issue suggestions that the president has not tacitly approved in advance.

"He's a very loyal Republican, and you won't see him go against Bush," said a Baker colleague who asked not to be identified because the study group is keeping a low profile before it issues any formal recommendations. "But he feels that the yearning for some responsible way out which would not damage American interests is palpable and the frustration level is exceedingly high."

At 76, Baker enjoys a reputation as one of Washington's craftiest bureaucratic operators and as a trusted adviser of the Bush family, which has enlisted his help for some of its deepest crises, including the second President Bush's effort to win the vote recount in Florida after the 2000 presidential election. Baker served as White House chief of staff, as well as secretary of state, under the first President Bush.

Andrew H. Card, Bush's former chief of staff, acknowledged recently that he twice had suggested that Baker would be a good replacement for Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld. Bush rejected that advice, and some associates of Baker's say they do not believe he is interested in taking the job at his age, which could put him in the position of having to implement the recommendations his study group makes, expected to come after the November elections.

Those proposals -- which he has said must be bipartisan and unanimous -- could give Bush some political latitude, should he decide to adopt strategies that he had once rejected, such as setting deadlines for a phased withdrawal of American forces.

Given his extraordinary loyalty to the Bush family -- Baker was present Saturday at the christening of a new aircraft carrier named for the first President Bush -- it was notable yesterday that Baker also joined the growing number of Republicans who are trying to create some space between themselves and the White House.

Yesterday, on This Week, Baker was shown a video clip of the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia, who said last week that Iraq was "drifting sideways" and who urged consideration of a "change of course" if the Iraqi government cannot restore order in two or three months. The American ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, has offered a similar warning to the current Iraqi government.

Asked if he agreed with that timetable, Baker said, "Yes, absolutely. And we're taking a look at other alternatives."

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