Time running out in Iraq, panel says

Study group report finds Bush policy `not working'

Quick troop pullout not recommended


Iraq Report

December 07, 2006|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- President Bush's Iraq policy "is not working" and he is running out of time to salvage it, a bipartisan panel said yesterday in a grim and strongly worded report that called for major reversals of his most firmly held stances but rejected a quick troop withdrawal.

The Iraq Study Group called for a major diplomatic push - including one-on-one talks with Iran and Syria, which the president has rejected - to help stabilize Iraq. It also advocated a change in the mission of U.S. forces that could allow some combat troops to pull out by early 2008 and for Bush to pressure the Iraqi government to quickly secure its own country or risk losing U.S. support.

Overall, the report - delivered to Bush at an early-morning White House meeting and unveiled later in a Capitol Hill news conference - was a strong rebuke to the president's approach in Iraq, presented as a kind of last-ditch effort to avoid an unfolding catastrophe that has become the driving reality of his presidency.

"The ability of the United States to shape outcomes is diminishing," the group wrote. "Time is running out."

"We do not recommend a stay-the-course solution. In our opinion, that approach is no longer viable," said James A. Baker III, the Republican former secretary of state and a close Bush family friend who co-chaired the panel.

"As a matter of humanitarian concern, as a matter of national interest and as a matter of practical necessity, it is time to find a new way forward, a new approach," he said.

The 10-member panel, co-chaired by former Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, a Democrat, offered a bleak assessment of the situation in Iraq, in stark contrast to Bush's own declarations about the war. The situation, they wrote, is "grave and deteriorating," and there is no "magic formula" nor "guarantee of success" in Iraq.

Calling conditions there "very, very serious," Hamilton said, "We do not know if it can be turned around. But we think we have an obligation to try."

The president neither endorsed nor rejected the report's recommendations, and his aides said it would take time - perhaps several weeks - to digest and respond to its conclusions.

"This report gives a very tough assessment of the situation in Iraq," Bush said, grasping a copy as he concluded a meeting with the group in the White House Cabinet Room. "We will take every proposal seriously."

Bush praised the bipartisan nature of the panel, established by Congress in March, saying that Americans are "tired of pure political bickering that happens in Washington, and they understand that on this important issue of war and peace, it is best for our country to work together."

Later, after a meeting with congressional Republicans and Democrats, Bush said there were "some very good ideas" in the report. "Not all of us around the table agree with every idea, but we do agree that it shows that bipartisan consensus on important issues is possible," he said.

Democrats swiftly announced they would hold an "aggressive" series of oversight hearings when they assume control of Congress next month, looking at military strategy and force readiness, the options that remain for stabilizing Iraq, and how the war is affecting national security.

Some Democrats complained that the report's proposals for extricating U.S. troops were neither quick nor specific enough. But in an early hint that bipartisanship on Iraq will be virtually impossible, most Democrats sounded pleased with the panel's harsh assessment of Bush's approach.

"I salute the Iraq Study Group for agreeing that the present Bush policy in Iraq has been a failure," said Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi of California.

Pennsylvania Rep. John P. Murtha, a leading Democratic voice for a swift troop withdrawal, dismissed the report as "no different than the current policy."

The White House scrambled to put its own spin on the document, elements of which had leaked out in news reports before the official release. Many of the recommendations were things the president supports or has already called for, his aides said, and they strongly rejected the notion that it was in any way a rebuke of Bush's policies.

"It's an acknowledgement of reality," Tony Snow, the White House spokesman, said of the report. Its call for a "new way forward," Snow said, is "what the president's been talking about."

Commission members said their goal wasn't to criticize Bush, Snow said. During the Cabinet Room session, Alan K. Simpson, a former Republican senator from Wyoming, said, "We're not here to vex and embarrass the administration," said Bush's spokesman, who sat in on the closed-door meeting. But on Capitol Hill, Simpson said that Americans view both Congress and the administration as "dysfunctional" and that the group had tried to keep partisanship out of its work.

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