Bipartisan panel challenges Washington, Iraqi leaders

WASHINGTON — 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.

“Our political leaders must build a bipartisan approach to bring a responsible conclusion to what is now a lengthy and costly war,” said former secretary of state James Baker and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, the co-chairmen.

They acknowledged political will would be hard to muster — both in Baghdad and Washington — and success is not guaranteed.

But “stay the course” is not an option and “time is running out” 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 group’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.

National reconciliation

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.

“To put it bluntly, what Iraqis choose to do is far more important than anything the United States chooses to do at this point,” said former senior State Department official Richard Haass, now president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

But the group’s principal recommendations “are very unlikely to produce success” 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 Group’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 — like  Bush’s call for “victory” — hoping to create enough diplomatic fudge language for all parts of Washington’s polarised political community to grab on to.

Some seemed inclined to do so.

“Though we won’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,” said Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who will become Senate Republican leader in January.

‘Limited space’

But while Bush promised to carefully consider the panel’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 “grave and deteriorating” crisis.

But by ordering up other studies — from the Pentagon, the White House and the State Department — Bush may be able to dilute the panel’s views and dodge the perception that he is bending to the will of outsiders.

“The Iraq Study Group will have given Bush the cover to make very dramatic changes if he wants to,” said Iraq expert Larry Diamond, an adviser to the panel.

“But emotionally and intellectually, I think he has limited space in the sense that I don’t think he’ll be able to bring himself to do it,” he told Reuters.

The group’s report is brutally frank in assessing the failings of Iraq’s government and the potentially catastrophic consequences of the country’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.

“What is missing from the report… is a strategy for sustaining a political settlement among Iraqis so they stand together instead of falling apart,” said Democratic Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, the next chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and potential US presidential candidate.

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