WASHINGTON â€” A bipartisan panel of Washington insiders has presented US and Iraqi political leaders a formidable challenge in dealing with the chaos in Iraq, but whether they can meet it is a major question.
â€œOur political leaders must build a bipartisan approach to bring a responsible conclusion to what is now a lengthy and costly war,â€ said former secretary of state James Baker and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, the co-chairmen.
They acknowledged political will would be hard to muster â€” both in Baghdad and Washington â€” and success is not guaranteed.
But â€œstay the courseâ€ is not an option and â€œtime is running outâ€ on a new approach, they warned.
Policy analysts saw numerous obstacles to success: A lack of concrete suggestions from the panel on ways to close rifts among Iraqis, opposition to some of the groupâ€™s key ideas from various quarters in the United States and pessimism that President George W. Bush is willing to embrace significant policy change in Iraq.
Up to now, most of the focus has been on changes required in US policy.
But the report, and most experts, argue that Iraqi government action towards national reconciliation, especially in allowing Sunnis a greater role in the power structure and unifying Shiites, is the real key.
â€œTo put it bluntly, what Iraqis choose to do is far more important than anything the United States chooses to do at this point,â€ said former senior State Department official Richard Haass, now president of the Council on Foreign Relations.
But the groupâ€™s principal recommendations â€œare very unlikely to produce successâ€ because they lack workable suggestions for encouraging Iraqi national reconciliation, said military expert Anthony Cordesman of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
Already, there is resistance from both ends of the US political spectrum to some of the Iraq Study Groupâ€™s major recommendations, including talking with Iran and a heavy emphasis on reviving Arab-Israeli peace efforts as an integral component of stabilising Iraq and the region.
The panel deliberately avoided partisan rhetoric or unachievable goals â€” likeÂ Bushâ€™s call for â€œvictoryâ€ â€” hoping to create enough diplomatic fudge language for all parts of Washingtonâ€™s polarised political community to grab on to.
Some seemed inclined to do so.
â€œThough we wonâ€™t reach agreement overnight, this is an opportunity for us to work in a bipartisan way with Democrats and the White House and reach consensus on one of the most critical issues before the Congress,â€ said Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who will become Senate Republican leader in January.
But while Bush promised to carefully consider the panelâ€™s work, many experts question whether, even with his legacy on the line, he and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Maliki would make what the 10-member panel says are essential policy changes.
The report has intensified pressure on Bush to shift course, urging that US forces begin to withdraw from combat in Iraq and calling for a new diplomatic and political push to halt a â€œgrave and deterioratingâ€ crisis.
But by ordering up other studies â€” from the Pentagon, the White House and the State Department â€” Bush may be able to dilute the panelâ€™s views and dodge the perception that he is bending to the will of outsiders.
â€œThe Iraq Study Group will have given Bush the cover to make very dramatic changes if he wants to,â€ said Iraq expert Larry Diamond, an adviser to the panel.
â€œBut emotionally and intellectually, I think he has limited space in the sense that I donâ€™t think heâ€™ll be able to bring himself to do it,â€ he told Reuters.
The groupâ€™s report is brutally frank in assessing the failings of Iraqâ€™s government and the potentially catastrophic consequences of the countryâ€™s deteriorating conditions.
On internal issues, the panel says the United States should reduce support for Iraq if Baghdad does not make substantial progress toward specific milestones on national reconciliation, security and governance issues.
But many experts and lawmakers have gone farther, urging a wholesale restructuring of the political system to bring about a more politically stable balance between Shiites and Sunnis.
â€œWhat is missing from the report… is a strategy for sustaining a political settlement among Iraqis so they stand together instead of falling apart,â€ said Democratic Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, the next chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and potential US presidential candidate.