How Iraq panel went from obscure to high profile

The Iraq Study Group's rise was aided by a rare loosening of official Washington's hold of the reins.

Rep. Frank Wolf (R) of Virginia has traveled to the most difficult war and civil war zones on the planet – from Chechnya and Bosnia to Sudan and Algeria. He had visited Iraq twice before, both times without a military escort. On his third visit, in September 2005, he had an epiphany.

He was about to tour a maternity ward in Tikrit when armed security guards were called in. Noting the mothers' and nurses' reaction, he recalls, "I said: 'We've got to get out of here. We can't walk through a maternity ward with guns like this scaring people." He concluded then that the US needed "fresh eyes" on its Iraq involvement.

From that small beginning has sprung one of the most-anticipated blue-ribbon commissions in recent years – the Iraq Study Group, which began deliberating over final conclusions this week.

How an obscure panel became a policy touchstone for Republicans and Democrats is a story in itself. More important, it illustrates those rare moments when a crisis reaches such a point that official Washington temporarily loosens hold of the reins. It's in those moments that experienced outside voices – think the 9/11 and Warren commissions – can make themselves heard. The Iraq panel, in particular, may prove particularly influential because of the escalating chaos in Iraq.

"We're losing," says Michael O'Hanlon, a policy analyst at the Brookings Institution. "One of the few hopes we have left is someone who is close enough to [President] Bush that he will be listened to by Bush – and smart enough and independent enough to see this in a different way."

Unlike the 9/11 commission, the Iraq Study Group has conducted its review of US engagement in Iraq in strict secrecy. Panelists were not publicly vetted. There were no open hearings or regular updates on whether the administration was being cooperative in releasing needed documents.

"If they had held open hearings or gone on television talk shows, like the 9/11 commission, they would have been forced into positions by the very nature of the questions that they would have lost their independence," says Congressman Wolf, who is the co-chairman of the human rights caucus in Congress.

While he would have liked to see Congress take up the serious work of oversight and recalibrating strategy on the Iraq war, he opted instead for a panel of "wise persons," because the Congress was too divided along partisan lines to play that role effectively. Like the 9/11 commission, the panel is to report to the American people, not just to the president or the Congress, he says. "This will be the defining issue of our time: How do we deal with the issue of terrorism? – and it has to be done in a bipartisan way," he says.

The Iraq Study Group is the flip side of the usual blue-ribbon panel, whose launch is often its high point. It began modestly as a one-line earmark in last spring's emergency defense spending bill – "$1 million ... for activities relating to Iraq."

It was born from the deteriorating security situation in Baghdad in 2005, which Wolf says was a sharp contrast to his second visit in 2003, with Rep. Christopher Shays (R) of Connecticut. While even then they traveled anonymously in old, beat-up vehicles for security reasons, they could visit villages, homes, hospitals, and schools relatively freely. In Al Kut, they were welcomed to join a wedding celebration and told how people loved America.

After his 2005 trip, Wolf urged Mr. Bush to select a group of "capable and distinguished individuals" to go to the region to "comprehensively review our efforts" in Iraq. He also began rounds of quiet consultations on the idea from Congress to the State Department, the Pentagon, and private think tanks.

"Frank Wolf is a very creative member of Congress," says David Abshire, a longtime diplomat who is advising the Iraq Study Group.

The reason the group caught on so quickly in official Washington is because, "they're all groping," says Mr. Abshire. "Ultimately, they all recognize the seriousness of the situation and want to do the right thing for the country."

Cochaired by former Secretary of State James Baker III and former Indiana Rep. Lee Hamilton, the 10-member group includes retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, former Attorney General Edwin Meese, former Clinton aide Leon Panetta, lobbyist Vernon Jordan, former Defense Secretary William Perry and former Sens. Charles Robb and Alan Simpson. Former CIA Director Robert Gates left the group after Bush nominated him to be secretary of Defense.

Launched last spring, the ISG took on a much higher profile this fall, as elections neared and the situation on the ground got worse in Iraq.

"No one paid attention to this until the fall when it became clear that the Republican majority was going to fall and Iraq was the issue over which Republicans would lose," says Ivo Daalder, a senior fellow at Brookings in Washington, D.C.

Wolf says he welcomes the high profile his simple idea has assumed. "I get amused when I think how we struggled to get it done, and now even Senator Kerry is supporting it," he says. "I think the attention will make the report even better."

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