Arab world welcomes Iraq Study Group report

Israel cites some doubts, but Arabs say their advice is now being heard.

The Iraq Study Group (ISG) recommendations are making far more waves outside Iraq than inside that troubled country.

To average Iraqis, the report seems to be an abstract exercise unlikely to end the war there anytime soon. But it is being eagerly read elsewhere in the region, with a number of Arab states welcoming the report as a sign that their advice is starting to be heeded. In Israel, however, it's being viewed with apprehension because of its calls for direct US engagement with Syria and Iran.

The Jordan Times – a paper with ties to the state, a US ally – hailed the recent ouster of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the ISG's report as a "return to common sense" in its lead editorial. "All of a sudden Washington appears to be heading towards a less bellicose and more cooperative stand on Middle East issues,'' it wrote, praising the report's recommendations to engage Iran and Syria and start a "gradual pullout of its troops to end the occupation."

Nabil Amr, a top adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, described the report as "excellent," saying he read it as an acknowledgement of Bush administration failures in Iraq and the region.

"The administration must wake up and see the reality on the ground in the Middle East requires a different policy,'' he says.

In Israel, though, reaction to the report ranged from muted to outright anger.

The ISG report states bluntly that the "US does its ally Israel no favors in avoiding direct involvement to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict." It says that there is "no military solution" and that "political engagement and dialogue are essential ... because it is an axiom that when the political process breaks down there will be violence on the ground."

Zbulun Orlev of Israel's right-wing National Religious Party labeled the report "unfriendly" to Israel, particularly in its advocacy for engaging Iran and calling for a "land for peace" approach to the problems in the Palestinian territories, which it says are inflaming regional problems.

"We thought after six years of Bush, the policies which Baker represents had died," Mr. Orlev says, referring to ISG co-chair James Baker, who was the secretary of State under President George H. W. Bush, during which time he pushed for a peace deal with the Palestinians.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made a point at a press conference Thursday to say that the report does not necessarily reflect Bush administration policy.

"Israelis know Baker's determination quite well," says Gershon Baskin, co-chair of the Israel-Palestine center for research and information. "If Bush accepts the recommendations, Israelis are going to face pressure they're not used to."

Elsewhere, the report's recommendations on Iran and Syria were seen as puzzling, as many analysts say the conflict in Iraq is the result of internal sectarian competition for power.

Iran's power to help could be limited. "Iran has an interest in stabilizing Iraq, but its influence has been exaggerated," says foreign policy analyst Davoud Hermidas Barvand. "It cannot even direct the political situation there among the Shiites."

The price of Iranian assistance is not yet clear. Analysts say it might seek a softer line over its nuclear program, an end to sanctions, and a guarantee against military strikes. It has proved a hard negotiator on the nuclear issue and the Baker recommendations have increased confidence in Iranian government circles.

One demand has already been articulated. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who makes the final decisions in foreign policy, said US troops must pull out of Iraq before Iran would help reduce the violence: "The occupation of Iraq is not a morsel that the US can swallow," Mr. Khamenei said during a visit by Iraq's president in late November. "The first step to resolve the instability in Iraq is the withdrawal of occupiers from this country and the transfer of security responsibilities to the popular Iraqi government."

The ISG calls for a negotiated settlement with Syria to stop shipping weapons to Hizbullah, the Shiite militant group, and stop allowing Iran to transport weapons across the country to Hizbullah in Lebanon. It calls for Syria's full cooperation in investigating all political assassinations in Lebanon, and to encourage Hamas to recognize Israel's right to exist.

In exchange, the ISG recommends that Israel return the Golan Heights to Syria, with an international force on the border that could include US troops, if both countries agree.

"Sure, Iran and Syria may be allowing people to come across their border and providing some arms or money, but the conflict is overwhelmingly about sectarian enmity inside Iraq,'' says Andrew Garfield, a former British military intelligence officer who spent most of last year as an adviser in Iraq and is now a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Washington.

Mr. Garfield says peacemaking will have to done inside Iraq, by Iraqis, and that he doubts any outside power has much influence there anymore.

He's also skeptical about the ISG's calls for more trainers embedded with Iraqi units. He argues the US military simply doesn't have enough trainers with the cultural sophistication to get the job done. At any rate, he says, the Iraqi Army would have to be dramatically expanded just to take up the role of the US and other coalition forces on the ground now.

"You'd have to replace the roughly 160,000 coalition forces with new Iraqi forces, and in reality that probably isn't enough either,'' he says. "Realistically, Iraq probably needs 300,000 to 400,000 more troops, and they'd have to be as good or better than the American troops they replace."

A stringer in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.

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