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Study Group Weighs Options for Stabilizing Iraq

A bipartisan group is holding several high-level meetings this week with top policy makers in the U.S. and abroad, as it prepares to finalize its much-anticipated report recommending fresh approaches to the situation in Iraq.

The 10-member Iraq Study Group held closed-door talks with President Bush on Monday, as well as with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Vice President Dick Cheney and other policy makers in the administration. On Tuesday, panel members held a video conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, a major U.S. ally in Iraq.

After meeting with the group, President Bush promised that he is "not going to prejudge" the panel's recommendations, which are expected next month. But he did caution against a sudden, major shift in strategy.

"I believe that it's important for us to succeed in Iraq, not only for our security but for the security of the Middle East," he said, adding, "I'm looking forward to interesting ideas."

The Iraq Study Group is co-chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker, who has close ties to the Bush family and served in the Cabinet of President George H.W. Bush, and by former Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton. When the two men returned from Baghdad in September, they warned that the task before them -- coming up with recommendations on how to bring peace to Iraq -- would be extremely difficult.

But the Democratic sweep of Congress may have made the group's job easier. The elections showed a popular desire for a policy shift in Iraq and provided political cover for President Bush, whose first major move after the votes were counted was to oust Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense.

The study group was formed in March at the request of Congress, which called for fresh eyes on the current and prospective situation in Iraq. Their review has focused on four broad topics: security; political developments; economy and reconstruction; and the strategic environment in Iraq and the region.

The panel includes several former officials of President George H.W. Bush's administration who have been openly critical of the current Bush administration's Iraq war plan -- including Baker and former CIA Director Robert Gates, the man tapped to replace Rumsfeld. Gates resigned from the group after his nomination.

The panel is not expected to deliver its final recommendations to President Bush and Congress for several more weeks. But media reports provide some clues as to what its proposal might include:

Talks with Syria and Iran: The study group is expected to approach the Iraq problem through a regional framework. One expected recommendation will be for a regional conference of all Iraq's neighbors who have a vested interest in making sure the violence doesn't spill over their borders. Already, Saudi Arabia is planning to build a 500-mile wall between it and Iraq.

Perhaps the most controversial recommendation, signaling the broadest policy shift, will be a call for talks between the United States and Iran and Syria. The White House accuses those two nations of helping fuel instability in neighboring Iraq, and supporting terrorism, and has consistently rejected the idea of direct talks with them. Many members of the Iraq group are considered pragmatists with a multilateralist worldview, who believe that dialogue is often the best route to conflict resolution. This week, British Prime Minister Tony Blair -- whose country has sent more troops to Iraq than any other except the United States -- endorsed the idea of engaging Syria and Iran.

Baker has said that enlisting the help of Syria and Iran could also pay dividends in the broader Middle East peace talks, because both groups have influence with the Islamist groups Hamas in the Palestinian territories and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

"My view is you don't talk just to your friends," Baker told NPR's Terry Gross in early October. "You talk as well to your enemies. You need to talk to your enemies in order to move forward diplomatically toward peace. And talking to someone, in my opinion, at least, my personal opinion, does not equate to appeasement."

U.S. Military Role in Iraq: Baker's public comments suggest the group is unlikely to endorse an immediate withdrawal from Iraq. "The choice really should not be one between picking up -- i.e. cutting and running -- and/or just staying the course," Baker told Gross. "I mean, there are other options other than just those two."

Those options could include a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops to pressure the Iraqi government to take a greater role in stemming the violence; temporarily boosting U.S. troop levels; and sending in more U.S. advisers to train Iraqi security forces.

Iraqi Government: Inducing the Iraqi government to step up its role in controlling the chaos -- by disarming militias and negotiation compromises among warring Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds -- is another key obstacle facing the United States.

Baker has said that he's against partitioning the country along sectarian lines -- an approach favored by Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE). Baker's co-chairman, Lee Hamilton, warns that the Iraqi government must act quickly or risk losing the support of the Iraqi and American people.

"The government of Iraq needs to show its own citizens soon, and the citizens of the United States, that it is deserving of continued support," Hamilton said in September. He says that in the next few months, it's critical that the Iraqi government show progress in securing Baghdad, quelling sectarian strife and delivering basic services.

Proposals might include deadlines for the U.S. Iraqi leadership by which it must show significant improvement in its capabilities. That would help pave the way to recommend major U.S. policy changes in the event those goals are not met.

Economy and Reconstruction: The study group has enlisted the insights of experts in the fields of economics and reconstruction. A healthy economy (driven by oil receipts), high employment, and the rebuilding of Iraq's crumbling infrastructure are seen as crucial to the country's future. Until now, security has hampered much of the rebuilding efforts in Iraq, and violence is driving hundreds of thousands of people from their homes and jobs.

Whatever the group's final recommendations, Baker has made it clear that they will reflect a consensus opinion. But that could be difficult to achieve, given the various political and military advisers, from academia, the government and the private sector -- who've provided input to the group. And there's no guarantee that President Bush will follow the group's recommendations.

Compiled from NPR staff reports.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Maria Godoy is a senior science and health editor and correspondent with NPR News. Her reporting can be heard across NPR's news shows and podcasts. She is also one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.