Report to call for Iraq pullout

Study group stops short of timeline for gradual withdrawal

November 30, 2006|By David E. Sanger and David S. Cloud | David E. Sanger and David S. Cloud,New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- The bipartisan Iraq Study Group reached a consensus yesterday on a final report that would call for a gradual pullback of the 15 American combat brigades now in Iraq but stopped short of setting a firm timetable for their withdrawal, according to people familiar with the panel's deliberations.

The report, unanimously approved by the 10-member panel led by James A. Baker III and Lee H. Hamilton, is to be delivered to President Bush next week. It is a compromise between two distinct paths that the group has debated since March, avoiding a specific timetable, which has been opposed by Bush, but making it clear that the American troop commitment should not be open-ended.

A person who participated in the commission's debate said that unless the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki believed that Bush was under pressure to pull back troops in the near future, "there will be zero sense of urgency to reach the political settlement that needs to be reached."

The report recommended that Bush make it clear that he intends to start the withdrawal relatively soon, and people familiar with the discussions over the final language said the implicit message was that the process should begin next year.

The report leaves unstated whether the 15 combat brigades that are the bulk of American fighting forces in Iraq would be brought home or pulled back to bases in Iraq or in neighboring countries. (A brigade typically consists of 3,000 to 5,000 troops.) From those bases, they would still be responsible for protecting a substantial number of American troops who would remain in Iraq, including 70,000 or more American trainers, logistics experts and members of a rapid reaction force.

As the commission wound up 2 1/2 days of deliberation in Washington, the group said in a public statement only that a consensus had been reached and that the report would be delivered Dec. 6 to Bush, Congress and the American public. Members of the commission were warned by Baker and Hamilton not to discuss the contents of the report.

But four people involved in the debate, representing different points of view, agreed to outline its conclusions in broad terms to address what they said might otherwise be misperceptions about the findings. Some said their major concern was that the report might be too late.

"I think we've played a constructive role," one person involved in the committee's deliberations said, "but from the beginning, we've worried that this entire agenda could be swept away by events."

Even as word of the study group's conclusions began to leak out, Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said two or three battalions of American troops were being sent to Baghdad from elsewhere in Iraq to assist in shoring up security in the capital. Another Pentagon official said the troops would be drawn from an American brigade in Mosul that was equipped with fast-moving, armored Stryker vehicles.

As described by the people involved in the deliberations, the bulk of the report by the Baker-Hamilton group focused on a recommendation that the United States devise a far more aggressive diplomatic initiative in the Middle East than Bush has been willing to attempt, including direct engagement with Iran and Syria. Initially, those contacts might take place as part of a regional conference on Iraq or broader Middle East peace issues like the Israeli-Palestinian situation, but they would ultimately involve direct, high-level talks with Iran and Syria.

Bush has rejected such contacts until now, and he has also rejected withdrawal, declaring in Riga, Latvia, on Tuesday that while he will show flexibility, "I'm not going to pull the troops off the battlefield before the mission is complete."

Commission members have said in recent days that they had to navigate around such declarations.

Their report, as described by those familiar with the compromise, may give Republicans political cover to back away from parts of the president's current strategy, even if Democrats say the report is short on specific deadlines.

As the group finished its meetings in Washington, it heard final testimony from Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, a Democrat who has urged a timeline for withdrawal, and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who has called for a significant bolstering of troops to gain control of the Iraqi capital. Two former secretaries of state, Henry A. Kissinger and George P. Shultz, also spoke to the group as it debated its final conclusions. Although the diplomatic strategy takes up the majority of the report, it was the military recommendations that prompted the most debate, people familiar with the deliberations said. They said a draft report put together under the direction of Baker and Hamilton had collided with another, circulated by other Democrats on the commission, that included an explicit timeline calling for withdrawal of the combat brigades to be completed by the end of next year. The two proposals were blended.

If Bush adopts the recommendations, far more American training teams would be embedded with Iraqi forces, a last-ditch effort to make the Iraqi army more capable of fighting alone. That is embraced in a memorandum that Stephen J. Hadley, the national security adviser, wrote to Bush this month.

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