Report: Iraq situation ‘grave and deteriorating’

A commission on the war in Iraq recommended new and enhanced diplomacy Wednesday so the United States can "begin to move its combat forces" out of the country responsibly.

"The situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating," the commission warned after an eight-month review of a conflict that has killed more than 2,800 U.S. troops and grown increasingly unpopular at home. The report was obtained by The Associated Press.

Receiving it at the White House, President Bush pledged to act in "a timely fashion," saying the report gives a "tough assessment" of conditions in Iraq.

The commission’s report warned that the situation is "grave and dangerous" after more than three years of war and said there are no easy options for Bush, an official familiar with the panel’s work said.

"There is no magic formula," the Iraq Study Group’s report said, according to the official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the study had not yet been released.

Commission members, whose report was eight months in the making, met with Bush at the White House just after daybreak to present their recommendations. They planned to publicly release the study later in the day, after briefing congressional leaders behind closed doors on Capitol Hill.

The commission is expected to advise gradually changing the mission of U.S. troops in Iraq from combat to training and supporting Iraqi units, with a goal of pulling back American combat troops by early 2008. It is also expected to urge a more energetic effort to involve Iraq’s neighbors in ending violence there. This outreach would include Iran and Syria, which the U.S. considers pariah states.

Bush has rejected establishing timetables for withdrawing troops and has said he wasn’t looking for "some kind of graceful exit out of Iraq."

The commission also was to recommend that Bush threaten to reduce economic and military support for the Iraqi government if it doesn’t meet certain benchmarks for improving security, The Washington Post reported Wednesday.

The Iraq Study Group — five Republicans and five Democrats — is led by Bush family friend and Republican James A. Baker III, a former secretary of state, and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind. It is the first major bipartisan assessment of U.S. options in Iraq, and has captured the attention of lawmakers and voters who saw last month’s Democratic congressional election sweep as a rejection of Bush’s steadfast commitment to the conflict.

Former Vice President Al Gore noted Wednesday that the group’s report is one of several other reviews being undertaken within the administration.

"They’re all basically saying the same thing: This is an utter disaster. This is the worst strategy mistake in the history of the United States," Gore said on NBC’s "Today" show.

"What we’re seeing with this report and all the others is a situation where there are no good outcomes," said Gore, the Democrat who narrowly lost to Bush in the election that went into overtime in 2000.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who lost to Bush in the last presidential election in 2004, said on CNN Wednesday, "The solution is by shifting the responsibility politically."

"It’s not easy to do but it’s the most essential ingredient and it’s been the most missing ingredient."

The Iraq report comes as Robert Gates, who is coasting toward Senate confirmation as replacement for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, told lawmakers a fresh approach was needed in Iraq. In a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday, Gates said he thought the U.S. was not winning — contradicting Bush who said on Oct. 25, "Absolutely, we’re winning."

Gates was confirmed by the committee by a 24-0 vote.

The commission’s findings and Gates’ promise of change has added political momentum for a new policy in Iraq, putting Bush on the defensive. Since the election, Bush himself has acknowledged the need for new approaches to the war and has initiated an administration assessment of options in Iraq.

Yet he also has said the panel’s voice will be just one of many on which he will base his decisions. He has warned against a hasty withdrawal of U.S. troops in Iraq, while congressional Democrats say some troops should leave right away to pressure the Iraqi government to boost its own efforts.

"We’re going to give it a careful review," White House press secretary Tony Snow said Tuesday. "As we have mentioned, there are other ongoing studies within the administration."

A senior administration official said "there will be some disagreements but a lot we can work with," but offered no detail. The official said Bush’s reaction was "generally pretty positive." The official refused to be identified by name because the report was not to be released until Wednesday.

The Iraq war has surpassed the length of American involvement in World War II, and U.S. deaths have passed 2,900. A relentless insurgency and the added complication of increased fighting between religious and ethnic factions have raised questions about whether Iraq is embroiled in a civil war and whether the U.S.-backed government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will ever be able to calm the country.

Polls shows that only about one in three Americans approve of Bush’s handling of Iraq.

Lawmakers including Sen. John Warner (news, bio, voting record) say they are eager to hear outside voices on Iraq and step up congressional oversight. Warner, R-Va., a Bush loyalist and Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, on Tuesday called on the president to consult with Democrats as well as Republicans on Iraq. Warner also urged Gates not to try to sidestep Congress or hold back honest advice for the president.

"You simply have to be fearless" when it comes to this job, Warner told the defense secretary nominee.

Bush lunched alone Tuesday with Baker, who briefed him on the commission’s conclusions.

On Thursday, members of Baker’s panel are expected to testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee while Bush meets with British Prime Minister Tony Blair to discuss Iraq.

The bipartisan group was initiated earlier this year by Rep. Frank Wolf (news, bio, voting record), R-Va., who returned from a trip to Iraq calling for a high-powered bipartisan task force that could assess U.S. options. Wolf added $1 million to a 2006 spending bill to fund the group.


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