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Shift coming in US policy on Iraq

'Stay the course' and 'cut and run' aren't options. Speaking to 'axis of evil' neighbors may be.

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At the same time, some experts say pointedly that the recommendation is likely to be for a "comprehensive" diplomatic effort – meaning it will call on the Bush administration to leave behind its reluctance to engage with influential but objectionable players in the conflict, including Iran and Syria.

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Pointing to past diplomatic efforts he was involved in – including the 1995 Dayton Accords on the Bosnia conflict and negotiations on post-Taliban Afghanistan in 2001 – Mr. Dobbins says one key to success was making clear that everyone would be heeded. But such inclusion, he adds, entails commitments and responsibilities.

On the particularly thorny question of US troop levels, options are being floated both for an increase and a decrease.

At the heart of this question are disappointing assessments of Iraqi security forces: After three years of US assistance and training, they are still unable to provide for Iraq's security – and in some cases are sources of rising insecurity.

"The argument for increasing the number of US troops comes down to the fact that the Iraqi security forces are not stepping up to the plate," says Michael O'Hanlon, a military-affairs specialist at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

The point of even a temporary increase in US troops, from the current number of about 144,000, would be to win decisively the battle for Baghdad security. Many in the military now consider this the key to keeping Iraq back from the precipice of outright civil war.

Still, many experts expect the contrary: a decision to gradually draw down US troops to the 40,000-60,000 level over the coming year.

"The reduction argument comes down to three points," says Mr. O'Hanlon. "Our Army and Marine Corps can't hold up under the strain; a shrinking US presence would focus the minds of Iraqi political leaders that they don't have forever; and it reduces the perception of an occupying power that drives the insurgency."

Another argument for this level of troops is that in order to make some success of Iraq, some American presence will be necessary for a number of years to come. But that is seen as politically possible in either country only under a reduced US presence.

"Given the unpopularity on either side of having our troops in Iraq, we're going to have to constitute a presence that can be sustained for some years to come," says Dobbins of RAND Corp.

Despite the attention to troop levels, resolution of Iraq's conflict remains largely political, not military, experts emphasize. As a result, the US is likely to make increasingly clear to Iraq's political leaders that the US commitment is contingent upon their ability to act on key political questions.

Among these: resolving the degree of autonomy that regions will be allowed, establishing a fair system for oil-revenue sharing among Iraq's key sectarian populations, and – given high unemployment – stepping up equitable economic-development activities in areas that have been secured by US and Iraqi forces.

Some advisers to the Iraq Study Group say that Baker has not ruled out the idea of abandoning the current government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki if it does not begin to act on key concerns. The alternative could be a more technocratic and authoritarian government less beholden to the Shiite majority.