A blue ribbon panel's call for a gradual U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq exerted new pressure Thursday on President Bush to overhaul his war strategy.
The bipartisan Iraq Study Group will recommend in its final report next week that U.S. forces begin a pullback next year, according to people close to the study panel, although the report lays out no specific schedule.
The report envisions that the U.S. force of about 140,000 troops could shrink substantially over the next several years as it shifts from a combat role to an advisory and logistical role, the sources said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the report has not been formally released.
Analysts said the report could be particularly important in emboldening more Republican elected officials to call for a pullback -- thus putting powerful pressure on a president who must pay attention to his own party. The report's drawdown blueprint, though vague, seemed to suit the political needs of Republican candidates who want to put the damaging issue of Iraq behind them before the 2008 elections, analysts said.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki said in an interview Thursday that Iraqi forces would be ready to assume control of the country's security by June, enabling U.S. troops to begin to leave. But Bush sought to rebuff the study group's suggestions at a news conference with Maliki in Jordan.
"I know there's a lot of speculation that these reports in Washington mean there's going to be some kind of graceful exit out of Iraq," Bush said, shaking his head. "We're going to stay in Iraq to get the job done, so long as the government wants us there."
In Washington, opinions varied on whether Bush would continue to staunchly resist the plan.
"Bush will not budge. He's not retreating from Iraq," said Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA official now with the American Enterprise Institute.
Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) suggested that Bush could pivot quickly, despite his words.
"I'd remind you that about three days before the election, the president said he was going to stick with Don Rumsfeld. A day afterward, he was gone. Don't give up on the president yet," Dodd said, referring to the Nov. 7 midterm vote and the Defense secretary's ouster.
Coming amid deepening unhappiness with the war, and under the imprimatur of former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), the document could have an enduring effect on the U.S. debate, experts and congressional leaders said.
"I think history will view this as having consolidated the national debate on finding an exit strategy," said Larry Diamond, a political scientist at Stanford University's Hoover Institution who was a U.S. advisor in Iraq and an advisor to the panel.
Another advisor, who was critical of the report, said he believed nevertheless that it would have an important influence because Baker, a close associate of the president's father, was "such an iconic figure."
"People will say, 'Here's what adults have to say about the situation,' " said the advisor, speaking anonymously because the report had not been released. "It won't be thrown on the dust heap."
Panel members may prolong their role in the national war debate after the report is released. They have considered traveling around the country to discuss it, as Hamilton did when he was co-chairman of the commission that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks, according to a source close to the study group.
Although the report's prescription for a troop drawdown attracted attention this week, the 10 panel members consider a recommendation for a new diplomatic offensive, including talks with Iran and Syria, to be its most important.
The troop drawdown recommendation represented a compromise between Democrats, who wanted to withdraw 60,000 combat troops over the course of a year, and Republicans, who wanted to avoid pressing the Bush administration for a pullback.
Some involved in the panel's work thought that compromise, like others, went too far -- producing a policy hash.
"In some ways, this is going to make things worse," said one advisor who favored a more aggressive military push. He said the compromises produced "a consensus document on which everybody can agree, but that doesn't say that much."
The troop reduction proposal resembles one offered by Democratic Sens. Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Carl Levin of Michigan, who have called for a drawdown to begin within six months. Reed and Levin, incoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, have said that there should be no fixed timetable and that U.S. forces should shift to an advisory role.
Reed, in an interview, noted that the outlines of the Iraq Study Group's plan and the Reed-Levin plan "track very closely."
"The longer we are there, the less likely it is that the Iraqis will say, 'We can do it,' " he said.
James Dobbins, a former Bush administration envoy and an expert advisor to the study group, said he expected the report to attract support "both on the diplomatic and the military front."
"There may be a growing bipartisan support in this country for what Jim Baker, Lee Hamilton, the other members of that commission have put together," Dobbins said, adding that he expected Bush to respond "not just to political pressures, but, above all, to the pressure of events."