Draft urges talks with Iran, Syria

November 27, 2006|By David Sanger | David Sanger,New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- A draft report on strategies for Iraq, which will be debated here by a bipartisan commission beginning today, urges an aggressive regional diplomatic initiative that includes direct talks with Iran and Syria but sets no timetables for a military withdrawal, according to officials who have seen all or parts of the document.

While the diplomatic strategy appears likely to be accepted, with some amendments, by the 10-member Iraq Study Group, members of the commission and outsiders involved in its work said they expect a potentially divisive debate about timetables for beginning an American withdrawal.

In interviews, several officials said that announcing a major withdrawal is the only way to persuade the government of Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, to focus on creating an effective Iraqi military force.

Several commission members, including some Democrats, are discussing proposals that call for a declaration that within a specified period of time, perhaps as short as a year, a significant number of American troops should be withdrawn, regardless of whether the Iraqi government's own forces are declared ready to defend the country themselves.

One proposal would involve putting more American trainers into Iraqi military units in a last-ditch improvement effort, coupled with a withdrawal that in a year would leave 70,000 to 80,000 American troops in the country, compared with about 150,000 now.

"It's not at all clear that we can reach consensus on the military questions," one member of the commission said late last week.

The draft, according to those who have seen it, appears to link American withdrawal to the performance of the Iraqi military, as President Bush has done. But the performance benchmarks are not specific.

While the commission is scheduled to meet here for two days this week, officials say the session may be extended if members are having trouble reaching a consensus.

The recommendations of the commission, an independent advisory group created at the suggestion of several members of Congress, are expected to carry unusual weight because its members, drawn from both political parties, have deep experience in foreign policy, including its co-chairmen, former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, a Republican, and Lee H. Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman.

While the commission has met many times interviewing administration officials, policy experts, military officers, and others, the meeting here today will be the first time that members have gathered to hash out the most difficult issues. The basis for their discussion will be a draft report that Baker and Hamilton directed the commission staff to prepare based on informal conversations among the members.

The group is expected to present its final report to Bush and to Congress in December.

The commission's co-chairmen have urged members and staff not to discuss their deliberations. As a result, those who were willing to talk about the commission's work and the draft reports did so only on the condition of anonymity.

Bush is not bound by the commission's recommendations, and during a trip to Southeast Asia that ended just before Thanksgiving, he made clear that he would also give considerable weight to studies under way by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and his own National Security Council. In Bogor, Indonesia, he said he planned to make no decisions on troop increases or decreases "until I hear from a variety of sources, including our own United States military."

But privately, administration officials seem deeply concerned about the weight of the findings of the Baker-Hamilton commission. "I think there is fear that anything they say will seem like they are etched in stone tablets," said one senior American diplomat. "It's going to be hard for the president to argue that a group this distinguished, and this bipartisan, has got it wrong."

Bush's nominee for secretary of defense, Robert M. Gates, resigned from the commission after his nomination this month and was replaced by Lawrence S. Eagleburger, another Republican who was once secretary of state. Gates has said little about his thoughts on military strategy, other than to express amazement, when he visited Iraq with the study group over Labor Day, that the administration had let the situation spin so far out of control.

Bush spent 90 minutes with commission members in a closed session at the White House two weeks ago "essentially arguing why we should embrace what amounts to a `stay the course' strategy," said one commission official who was present.

Officials said that the draft of the section on diplomatic strategy, which was heavily influenced by Baker, seemed to reflect his public criticism of the administration for its unwillingness to talk with enemies, and particularly Iran and Syria.

But senior administration officials, including Stephen J. Hadley, the president's national security adviser, have expressed skepticism that either nation will go along, especially while Iran is locked in a confrontation with the United States over its nuclear program. "Talking isn't a strategy," he said in an interview in October. "The issue is how can we condition the environment so that Iran and Syria will make a 180-degree turn, so that rather than undermining the Iraqi government, they will support it."

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