Times Staff Writer

Bush administration policies have set off a "slide toward chaos" in Iraq, a bipartisan national commission declared Wednesday in a major reappraisal that challenges President Bush's view of the war and builds new pressure for disengagement.

In uncompromising and dismal terms, the panel said the continuing deterioration in Iraq could inflame the entire region in a deadly war that would further curtail U.S. influence throughout the world. It issued 79 recommendations that counter many hardened administration stances, such as holding talks with Syria and Iran, and more forcefully pushing Iraqi leaders toward political advances.

"The current approach is not working, and the ability of the United States to influence events is diminishing," said former Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), who leads the 10-member Iraq Study Group with former Secretary of State James A. Baker III. "Many Americans are understandably dissatisfied. Our ship of state has hit rough waters. It must now chart a new way forward."

The panel's report, coming after a midterm election widely seen as a repudiation of Bush's war policy, is certain to further transform the growing national debate on Iraq -- with Democrats and many Republicans agreeing Wednesday that its conclusions pointed to the urgent need for new strategies.

But even as pressure grows on the White House to change course, Bush stopped short of any immediate endorsement of the recommendations. The president has signaled that he is considering strategy proposals from a number of sources, but told study group members in a morning meeting that he viewed their report as "unique" because of the panel's bipartisan composition.

The commission's findings were issued on a day when the military reported 10 U.S. service members were killed in Iraq, the highest daily toll in weeks and a reminder of the results of a war policy now widely seen as failing.

The report also came a day after Robert M. Gates, who will be sworn in as secretary of Defense this month, told Congress that America was not winning the war -- and just days after disclosure of a memo by outgoing Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld in which he said U.S. strategy required a "major adjustment."

In the panel's 96-page report, it grouped its 79 recommendations under three main proposals: a "diplomatic offensive" to stabilize Iraq, including talks with Syria and Iran; a shift in the role of U.S. troops from combat to an advisory function, allowing the withdrawal of nearly all 15 combat brigades by early 2008; and an effort to prod Iraqi leaders toward political progress, withholding military, economic and diplomatic help if necessary.

The report said the administration should set benchmarks for progress by Iraqis and should make clear that the mission is "not open-ended."

The panel's five Republicans and five Democrats urged the recommendations be instituted as a set.

"Our three most important recommendations are equally important and reinforce one another," Hamilton said.

For Bush to accept the recommendations, he would have to change course on a number of key issues. He has largely ruled out talks with Syria and Iran, and resisted proposals for setting timetables for Iraqi government progress.

And the president has shown no interest in pressing for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, as the report urged, until the Palestinians establish a government that wins American approval and take other steps.


Criticizing Iraq conditions

The report, approved by such conservatives as former Reagan administration Atty. Gen. Edwin M. Meese III and former Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.), was striking in its harsh critique of conditions in Iraq nearly four years after the U.S.-led invasion.

While the White House continues to point to signs of progress, the report emphasized the "great suffering" of ordinary Iraqis, persistent disorder, government inefficiency and corruption, economic setbacks, and the weaknesses of the Iraqi military and police.

The report criticized the reconstruction effort -- saying that among U.S. government agencies, "there are no clear lines establishing who is in charge" -- and faulted Iraq's neighbors and international donor countries for doing little to help.

It noted that the war had left about 2,900 Americans dead and 21,000 wounded, with costs projected to rise to $2 trillion.

"The United States is spending $2 billion a week," commission members wrote. "Our ability to respond to other international crises is constrained. A majority of the American people are soured on this war. This level of expense is not sustainable over an extended period, especially when progress is not being made."

The report also found that the U.S. military was much worse for the experience, countering years of more favorable assessments by Defense officials.

"U.S. military forces, especially our ground forces, have been stretched nearly to the breaking point by the repeated deployments in Iraq, with attendant casualties ... greater difficulty in recruiting and accelerated wear on equipment," the report said.

The panel found that the traditional partnership between uniformed services and civilian leaders "has frayed, and civil-military relations need to be repaired."


'Underreporting' violence

The report faulted U.S. practices for "underreporting" violence in Iraq, saying American officials leave out many deaths that may be the result of war or insurgent action.

"The standard for recording attacks acts as a filter to keep events out of reports and databases," the report said. "A murder of an Iraqi is not necessarily counted as an attack."

The effect is such that on one day in July, U.S. officials recorded 93 attacks or significant acts of violence. But the commission members said a review of reports uncovered 1,100 acts of violence.

For all that, the future could be far worse, the report said.

"We do not recommend a 'stay the course' solution," Baker said at a morning news conference. "In our opinion, that approach is no longer viable."

Asked if the group accepted Bush's earlier goal of making Iraq a model for democracy in the Middle East, panel members said they preferred to focus on the more recently stated goals: making the country stable, self-governing and secure.

The report rejected the idea of an immediate troop withdrawal, saying that would probably intensify violence and create a dangerous power vacuum. It said that a large increase in U.S. troops would not solve the essential problem: the need for a political deal between Iraqi factions.

The panel ruled out proposals calling for sharply decentralizing the country into three sections, arguing that the mix of ethnic and religious populations would make separating them difficult and dangerous.


'Diplomatic offensive'

At the heart of the Iraq Study Group's proposal is its recommendation for a "new diplomatic offensive" that it said U.S. officials should launch by the end of the year. Panel members recommended formation of a standing group of countries and organizations -- much as world powers formed a "contact group" to deal with Afghanistan after U.S. troops toppled the Taliban in late 2001.

The new group would consist of Iraq's neighbors, key regional allies such as Egypt, the Persian Gulf states, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, and the European Union.

The panel argued that a regional solution was needed because all of the Mideast's problem are so closely linked. As an example, it said that resistance to the U.S. presence -- as well as support for militant Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr -- had "spiked" in the aftermath of the Israeli bombing campaign in Lebanon this summer.

The group said the diplomatic offensive should include, as soon as possible, unconditional meetings between Israel, Lebanon and Syria on one hand, and between Israel and the Palestinians on the other -- provided the Palestinians represented acknowledge Israel's right to exist.

Baker staunchly defended the need for U.S. officials to deal with Syria and Iran, even though administration officials believe that would be rewarding bad behavior by ignoring Iran's ambitions to develop a nuclear program.

"For 40 years we talked to the Soviet Union during a time when they were committed to wiping us off the face of the Earth," Baker said. "We're talking not about talking to be talking; we're talking about tough diplomacy."

The group also urged that the United States, in the interest of reducing Iraqi opposition, declare publicly that it has no desire to establish permanent military bases and has no designs on Iraqi oil. However, the group said the U.S. government should consider requests from the Iraqis to maintain temporary bases.


Troop commitment

The idea of withdrawing all combat brigades by 2008 was not among the 79 recommendations. But the report's narrative said that, "subject to unexpected developments," almost all combat units could be pulled out by then.

The report said that an open-ended commitment provided no incentive for the Iraqi government to move toward reconciliation.

"While it is clear that the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq is moderating the violence, there is little evidence that the long-term deployment of U.S. troops by itself has or will lead to fundamental improvements in the security situation," it said.

The report represents "a big change" in the national debate over the Iraq war, said former Pentagon official John Hamre, president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

"It changes the goal from victory to stability with disengagement," Hamre said.

In Baghdad, Iraqis watching news reports on Arabic-language television greeted the findings with a mix of skepticism and guarded hope.

"This study came late," said university professor Ammar Salman, 51. "We have lost three years because of the conflicts inside the Bush administration."

In London, the report put Prime Minister Tony Blair on the defensive in Parliament as he was asked about the need for changes in strategy. Blair is scheduled to meet with Bush today in a Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day meeting at the White House.

"It is our strategy to withdraw as the Iraqis become capable of taking on their security," Blair said. "That has been our strategy from the beginning, and it remains our strategy now."


Times staff writers Solomon Moore in Baghdad, Kim Murphy in London and Greg Miller in Washington contributed to this report.



Calls for change

Some key recommendations of the Iraq Study Group:

Troop commitment

The U.S. should not make an open-ended commitment to keep large numbers of American troops deployed in Iraq.

Military mission

The primary mission of U.S. forces in Iraq should evolve into training and supporting the Iraqi army. The U.S. could start moving forces out of Iraq, getting all combat brigades not needed for force protection out by the first quarter of 2008.

Inclusive approach

The United States must try to engage all parties in Iraq, except Al Qaeda. The U.S. must find a way to talk to insurgent leaders.

Regional outreach

The United States should launch a comprehensive new diplomatic offensive by year's end to deal with the problems of Iraq and the region.

Support group

An Iraq International Support Group should be organized immediately. It should include Iran and Syria.

Source: Reuters


Back story

The Iraq Study Group is a 10-member commission -- with five Democrats and five Republicans -- formed this year with the approval of Congress and the White House to consider the Iraq war through "fresh eyes."

The commission spent four days in Iraq, deliberated more than eight months and met with more than 170 people. It is funded by $1 million approved by Congress and is operated through four Washington think tanks.

The panel was formed at the suggestion of Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), who has said that the White House initially was cool to the idea but that top administration officials quickly signed on. Wolf proposed the formation of the commission after a 2005 trip to Iraq that convinced him things were not going well.

In presenting the conclusions Wednesday, the group's co-chairmen -- former Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.) and former Secretary of State James A. Baker III -- said its recommendations were not binding.

"But it is the only recommended approach that will enjoy, in our opinion, complete bipartisan support, at least from the 10 people that you see up here," Baker said.

Source: Times staff and wire reports

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