Huge task before Iraq Study Group

The 10-member group, which met with White House officials Monday, is to make recommendations after Thanksgiving.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

For the bipartisan panel of luminaries known as the Iraq Study Group, the most important thing now may be hammering out a framework for peace in Washington, not drawing up new lists of options for US policy toward Iraq.

After all, despite all the Washington talk about cooperation since last week's elections, profound differences about the way forward remain between many Democrats and Republicans, as well as among them. Yet all sides say they are willing to listen to one another, and look for common ground.

Enter the Iraq panel, headed by former Secretary of State James Baker III and former Democratic congressmen Lee Hamilton. Timing – plus the nature of its members – may have thrust the group into a central role in perhaps the most important policy debate now facing the nation.

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"Maybe an outside group can craft a policy that both sides can accept, though they don't want to have responsibility for drafting it," says William Martel, an associate professor of security studies at the Fletcher School at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.

The 10-member Iraq Study Group was created by Congress last spring. At the time the move generated little notice, apart from a flurry of activity among Washington think tank experts eager to serve as advisers to the panel.

Now its final report, expected before the end of the year, is something Washington is eagerly anticipating.

On Monday group members met with White House officials, including President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. They were to interview British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Tuesday via videoconference.

As to Mr. Bush's appearance before the group, presidential spokesman Tony Snow characterized it as a conversation in which both sides shared views. "This is not a deposition," Mr. Snow said.

Bush himself said he was not sure what the Iraq Study Group's report would say but that he looked forward to seeing it. "I'm not going to prejudge" the group's work, said Bush.

The full Iraq Study Group is set to meet the week after Thanksgiving to begin the contentious process of drawing up final recommendations. Messrs. Baker and Hamilton did not want to produce any lists before the election that could have been leaked for political gain.

Bush's nominee to replace Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, former Director of Intelligence Robert Gates, was a panel member. Last Friday, Baker and Hamilton announced that Gates had resigned from the group and been replaced by former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger. The panel remains split between five Democrats and five Republicans.

Given its nature, the Iraq Study Group seems unlikely to produce a report calling either for a continuation of current policy or an immediate and rapid drawdown of US forces in Iraq.

In appearances promoting a recent book, Baker, for his part, has been somewhat critical of the administration's slowness to react to Iraq's intensifying violence.

When he was secretary of State, Baker was open to talking even with US adversaries, to the point where he endured hours-long harangues from the late Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad. As commission co-chairman, Baker has already met with Javad Zarif, Iran's ambassador to the US.

It is possible the Iraq Study Group may urge some sort of regional roundtable meeting on Iraq's future that includes Iran and Syria – a recommendation the White House has previously opposed.

Former Ambassador to the UN Richard Holbrooke, a Democrat, recently said that a regional conference similar to the one he used to craft an end to the Bosnian war in 1995 might be useful.

"This war is being waged on the ground by ferocious forces which aren't necessarily going to be much interested in what regional and international players say," Mr. Holbrooke, who is not an Iraq Study Group member, said in a Council on Foreign Relations analysis. "Still, I think it's worth trying."

Of course, given the presence of Baker and other old-hand Republicans on the panel, it is also unlikely that the study group will urge any sort of timetable for a troop pullout – even a vague one. That's something Democrats might find hard to accept.

As to possible middle-ground solutions, the panel has reportedly been weighing an option called "Stability First," which emphasizes withdrawing US resources from much of the country to focus all efforts on Baghdad stability; and an option called "Redeploy and Contain," which would involve withdrawing most US forces to surrounding nations, where they would serve as a mobile reserve for Iraqi national forces.

Hamilton has said it is possible his group won't be able to come to consensus at all. As a party, Democrats remain split over the degree to which Iraq might still be saved, as well as over the nature of any troop withdrawal deadlines.

Not that the GOP, as a whole party, is now a unified front. Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona has said what's needed now is, in fact, an increase in US force levels in Iraq, at least for a time.

As to the dialogue between the parties, while key Senate Democrats have vowed to push for a resolution that would call for troop withdrawals in a matter of months, a withdrawal timetable appears to remain an anathema to the White House.

"I don't think we're going to be receptive to the notion there's a fixed timetable at which we automatically pull out," said Bush's chief of staff, Joshua Bolten, in a weekend broadcast interview.

Wire service material was used in this report.

Iraq Study Group

At work since April, the bipartisan panel is expected to suggest changes in US policy in Iraq by year's end. Its members are:

James Baker III, former secretary of State (George H.W. Bush), co-chairman

Lee Hamilton, former congressman (D) of Indiana, co-chairman

Lawrence Eagleburger, former secretary of State (George H.W. Bush)

Vernon Jordan, attorney, presidential adviser (Clinton)

Edwin Meese, former US attorney general (Reagan)

Sandra Day O'Connor, former Supreme Court justice

Leon Panetta, former White House chief of staff (Clinton)

William Perry, former secretary of Defense (Clinton)

Chuck Robb, former governor of Virginia (D)

Alan Simpson, former senator (R) of Wyoming

– Compiled by Leigh Montgomery

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