President Bush’s war policies have failed in almost every regard, the bipartisan Iraq Study Group concluded Wednesday, and it warned of dwindling chances to change course before crisis turns to chaos.
Nearly four years, $400 billion and more than 2,900 U.S. deaths into a deeply unpopular war, violence is bad and getting worse, there is no guarantee of success and the consequences of failure are great, the panel of five Republicans and five Democrats said in a bleak accounting of U.S. and Iraqi shortcomings. The implications, they warned, are dire for terrorism, war in the Middle East and higher oil prices around the world.
It said the United States should find ways to pull back most of its combat forces by early 2008 and focus U.S. troops on training and supporting Iraqi units. The U.S. also should begin a "diplomatic offensive" by the end of the month and engage adversaries Iran and Syria in an effort to quell sectarian violence and shore up the fragile Iraqi government, the report said.
The report’s release followed by a day the sobering assessment by Robert Gates, confirmed Wednesday as Bush’s new Pentagon chief, that the United States is not winning in Iraq.
"Despite a massive effort, stability in Iraq remains elusive and the situation is deteriorating," the independent report said. "The ability of the United States to shape outcomes is diminishing. Time is running out."
The group’s recommendations do not endorse either the current White House strategy of staying put in Iraq or calls from Bush’s political opponents for a quick pullout or a firm timetable for withdrawal.
"The report is an acknowledgment that there will be no military solution in Iraq. It will require a political solution arrived at through sustained Iraqi and region-wide diplomacy and engagement," said Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb.
Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and other Democrats said the ball is in Bush’s court.
"If the president is serious about the need for change in Iraq, he will find Democrats ready to work with him in a bipartisan fashion to find a way to end the war as quickly as possible," Pelosi said.
The Iraq panel’s leaders said they tried to avoid politically charged language such as "victory" or "civil war," but the words they chose still were powerful. The report said the current strategy is not working and laid out examples of where it has come up short.
The military reported that 10 American troops were killed Wednesday, adding to the toll of U.S. forces who have died since the invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in early 2003. The United States has about 140,000 troops in the country.
"We do not recommend a stay-the-course solution," said James A. Baker III, the former secretary of state and Bush family adviser who was co-chairman of the commission. "In our opinion, that approach is no longer viable."
Former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., the other chairman, said the commission agreed with Bush’s goal of an Iraq able to govern, protect and sustain itself, but that the administration needed new approaches.
"No course of action in Iraq is guaranteed to stop a slide toward chaos," Hamilton said. "Yet, in our view, not all options have been exhausted."
The report has been widely seen as an opportunity for Bush to pivot from policies blamed in large part for Republican losses in elections last month. Bush praised the group’s work, but gave no hint of his next move. He said he would give the findings a hard look and urged Congress to do the same.
"This report gives a very tough assessment of the situation in Iraq," Bush said after an early morning briefing from the group of former government officials and advisers. "It is a report that brings some really very interesting proposals, and we will take every proposal seriously and we will act in a timely fashion."
Bush met later with members of Congress from both parties and said he wanted to cooperate to "send a message to the American people that the struggle for freedom, the struggle for our security is not the purview of one party over the other."
The commission also briefed members of the Iraqi government by teleconference, and one official there agreed that Iraqis must take responsibility for their own security. "Absolute dependence on foreign troops is not possible," said Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh.
The Bush administration has tried to keep the commission at arm’s length so as not to appear hostage to its recommendations. To make the point that Bush will make his own choices, the White House stresses that other administration reviews are under way and Bush will have a menu of options to consider.
Baker offered a word of caution on that point during an interview with Associated Press Television News on Wednesday.
"This is the only bipartisan report for sale," and thus the one most likely to gain crucial consensus, Baker said.
Among its 79 recommendations, the group said the United States should reduce political, military or economic support for Iraq if the government in Baghdad cannot make substantial progress. The report said Iraqi leaders have failed to deliver better security or political compromises that would reduce violence, and it implied that a four-month joint U.S.-Iraqi military campaign to reduce violence in Baghdad is hopeless.
"Because none of the operations conducted by U.S. and Iraqi military forces are fundamentally changing the conditions encouraging the sectarian violence, U.S. forces seem to be caught in a mission that has no foreseeable end," the report said.
That was a withering evaluation of a central tenet of the Bush military strategy in Iraq. In Baghdad and elsewhere, U.S. forces are supposed to help Iraqi units "clear, hold and build," shorthand for routing insurgents or other fighters from problem areas, securing those areas from further violence and setting a positive future course.
On the highly emotional issue of troop withdrawals, the commission warned against either a precipitous pullback or an open-ended commitment to a large deployment.
"Military priorities must change," the report said, toward a goal of training, equipping and advising Iraqi forces.
The report said Bush should put aside misgivings and engage Syria, Iran and the leaders of insurgent forces in negotiations on Iraq’s future, to begin by year’s end. It urged him to revive efforts at a broader Middle East peace.
The report laid out consequences from bad to worse, including the threat of wider war in the Middle East and reduced oil production that would hurt the global economy.
In a slap at the Pentagon, the commission said there is significant underreporting of the actual level of violence in Iraq. It also faulted the U.S. intelligence effort, saying the government "still does not understand very well either the insurgency in Iraq or the role of the militias."
The commission recommended the number of U.S. troops embedded to train Iraqis should increase dramatically, from 3,000 to 4,000 currently to 10,000 to 20,000. Commission member William Perry, defense secretary in the Clinton administration, said those could be drawn from combat brigades already in Iraq.
The report noted that Iraq costs run about $8 billion a month and that the bills will keep coming. "Caring for veterans and replacing lost equipment will run into the hundreds of billions of dollars," the commission said. "Estimates run as high as $2 trillion for the final cost of the U.S. involvement in Iraq."
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