Baker panel to urge Bush to change policy on Iraq

Present course is not working, commission says

October 16, 2006|By Doyle McManus | Doyle McManus,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- A commission backed by President Bush that is exploring U.S. options in Iraq intends to propose significant changes in the administration's strategy by early next year, members say.

Two options under consideration would represent reversals of U.S. policy: withdrawing U.S. troops in phases, and bringing neighboring Iran and Syria into a joint effort to stop the fighting.

While it weighs alternatives, the 10-member commission led by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III has agreed on one principle.

"It's not going to be `stay the course,'" a participant said. "The bottom line is, it isn't working. There's got to be another way."

"There'll probably be some things in our report that the administration might not like," Baker said last week.

It is not clear how willing Bush might be to alter his strategy, which focuses on improving security in Baghdad, training Iraqi security forces and pressing the Iraqi government to forge a political agreement among the country's warring factions. Progress on those fronts has been slow, and Bush said last week that he is open to new ideas.

"My attitude is: Don't do what you're doing if it's not working. Change," Bush said.

When the panel was formed in March, some administration officials hoped that it would produce a bipartisan endorsement of existing policy. But as sectarian violence in Iraq has worsened, more Republicans in Congress - and privately some administration officials - have looked for alternatives.

The Iraq Study Group was formed in response to a proposal by members of Congress, but Baker sought and won Bush's endorsement. Members include former Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, an Indiana Democrat who served as co-chairman of the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks; retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor; former Rep. Leon E. Panetta, a California Democrat who was President Bill Clinton's chief of staff; and former CIA Director Robert M. Gates.

In its most recent closed-door meetings, the panel focused on two options drafted by experts outside the government.

One, titled "Stability First," called for continuing to try to stabilize Baghdad, boosting efforts to entice insurgents into politics, and bringing Iran and Syria into plans to end the fighting.

The other, called "Redeploy and Contain," called for a gradual, phased withdrawal of American troops to bases outside Iraq where they would be available principally for strikes against terrorist organizations anywhere in the region.

The experts also prepared an option called "Stay the Course, Redefine the Mission," and an alternative urging a quick U.S. withdrawal, but the panel appeared less interested in those plans, participants said.

Baker and other commission members refused to confirm the substance of the options and emphasized that the panel had made no decisions. But Baker signaled the thrust of the panel's deliberations in several television interviews last week.

"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. "I believe in talking to your enemies. Neither the Syrians nor the Iranians want a chaotic Iraq, so maybe there is some potential for getting something other than opposition from those countries."

Bringing Iran and Syria into negotiations would require significant changes in U.S. policy.

"To bring them in, we need to stop emphasizing things like democracy and start emphasizing things like stability and territorial integrity," said James Dobbins of the Rand Corp., a former U.S. envoy to Afghanistan. "We need to stop talking about regime change. It's unreasonable to think you can stabilize Iraq and destabilize Iran and Syria at the same time."

The Iraq Study Group said Dobbins was one of its advisers. Dobbins refused to talk about the panel's work and said he was giving a personal opinion. Other participants described the commission's discussions on the condition that they not be identified, because Baker had asked them to keep the work confidential.

Baker, promoting a new volume of his memoirs in recent television interviews, including an appearance on Comedy Central's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, offered his views on issues under consideration by the panel. He also appeared on ABC's This Week with George Stephanopoulos, PBS' The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and PBS' The Charlie Rose Show.

After the publicity blitz drew quiet grumbles from other participants, Baker canceled a breakfast with newspaper reporters and declined a request from the Los Angeles Times for an interview.

In interviews, Baker said he did not support calls for an early withdrawal of U.S. troops.

"I think that if we picked up and left right now that you would see the biggest civil war you've ever seen," he said.

He also said he did not agree with proposals to divide Iraq into separate states for Sunni Arabs, Shiites and Kurds.

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