Parties inch closer to new policy in Iraq

Times Staff Writers

With the Democratic capture of Congress boosting pressure for a bipartisan approach to the Iraq war, a rough consensus is emerging that could lead to a new direction and a gradual U.S. disengagement from the costly conflict.

There are those on both sides of the aisle who favor giving the Iraqis firm deadlines for meeting a list of political goals, with the possibility of redeploying U.S. troops if the goals aren’t met -- a scenario that could lead to withdrawal.

Democratic and Republican leaders also have begun to agree on ideas such as accelerating a shift of U.S. troops from a combat to an advisory role, decentralizing Iraqi government power and launching diplomatic efforts to win support from Iraq’s neighbors, including Iran and Syria.

But formidable obstacles remain. Most notably, there is no clear agreement on the key issue of troop withdrawals. Some Democrats have demanded a fixed timetable for a military exit, but incoming Democratic leaders haven’t endorsed the idea.


Similarly, some Republicans -- including Sen. John McCain of Arizona -- have proposed an increase in U.S. troop strength, if only a temporary one, to give the Iraqi government one more chance to gain control of security in Baghdad. That idea may have lost crucial support with Tuesday’s Democratic electoral success.

All of the options have distinct disadvantages. Even so, administration officials, lawmakers, military commanders and others interviewed for this article said that this growing agreement, combined with the passing of a fractious midterm election season, offered a chance for headway.

Two people familiar with the discussions of the Iraq Study Group -- a bipartisan commission, backed by the White House and Congress, that will suggest changes in policy -- said that one fundamental point the panel was likely to make is that the U.S. commitment to Iraq cannot be open-ended.

“The administration has been saying: ‘We cannot afford to lose,’ ” said one of them, speaking on condition of anonymity when discussing panel views. “But at some point, the question becomes, ‘Can we afford to stay?’ ”

Bush has said he is willing to adjust U.S. tactics but has emphasized that his goal of an Iraq that can defend, govern and sustain itself is unchanged. But like the president, key administration officials have adopted more conciliatory views after the dramatic Democratic takeover of the House and Senate.

“We have to give ourselves a good, honest scrub about what is working and what is not working, what are the impediments to progress, and what should we change,” Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a CBS News interview Friday.

Considering new angles

Pace said Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top commander in Iraq, and Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, who oversees U.S. forces in the Middle East, were working on a new review.


Stephen J. Hadley, the White House national security advisor, said this week that Bush thinks “we have an opportunity to define a way ahead” that will draw support from Republicans and Democrats as well as from Iraqis.

The agreements on new approaches among Democrats and Republicans carry more weight because they come at a time when centrists are gaining an important role in shaping U.S. foreign policy. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld was expected to be replaced soon by former CIA Director Robert M. Gates. Gates is considered a foreign policy “realist” who has been openly critical of aspects of the Iraq policy.

The Iraq Study Group will have the first opportunity for charting a new path. The congressionally organized panel is stocked with foreign policy centrists from both parties. Led by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), the panel will meet with Bush next week and hopes to release its recommendations by mid-December.

Although officials of the panel have not begun working to reach a formal consensus, it is widely expected that the group will call for engagement with Iran and Syria, proposals that are fiercely resisted by some Democrats and Republicans alike.


Baker and Hamilton have indicated they favor talking to Iran and Syria, as has Gates, who was a member of the panel before his nomination to the Pentagon post. He was replaced Friday by former secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger, another Republican centrist who privately has been fiercely critical of some Bush policies.

Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R- Ind.), who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), another committee member, have indicated they are open to talks with Iran and Syria. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), who becomes the chairman of the committee when Democrats take over the Senate, also supports the idea of talks.

The proposal for shifting more power out of Baghdad and toward Iraq’s Kurdish and Shiite and Sunni Arab regions has been most visibly championed by Biden. But it also has won at least general support from lawmakers of both parties, including Lugar, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas).

But the idea of breaking the country into three fully independent parts, which Biden has not proposed, has little support because of fears it would lead to “ethnic cleansing” and could draw the neighbors into a protracted regional war.


Spreading power in Iraq

Lawmakers of both parties pressed during the election campaign for an increase in pressure on the Iraqis to reach a power-sharing deal. Yet there is no agreement on how to apply pressure on the factions to make concessions.

Many Democratic lawmakers support a plan by Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the incoming Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, and Jack Reed (D-R.I.), a committee member, to begin a “phased redeployment” of U.S. troops in order to force Iraqis to reach an agreement. But the Bush administration and its supporters strongly oppose redeployment.

Since winning control of Congress, Democratic leaders have not pushed for immediate troop reductions and have indicated that they would resist efforts by any of their members to end the mission through a funding cutoff.


Some Iraq Study Group members have appeared interested in at least temporarily increasing U.S. troop strength to see if it would suppress sectarian violence, said people close to the panel. Some insiders referred to the option as “one last chance” when it was raised earlier this fall.

Reed, who has been one of the Democrats’ point men on the issue, has signaled that he would not dismiss the idea of a temporary troop increase -- as long as the Iraqis were moving toward a political deal.

Still, U.S. military officers are increasingly skeptical that adding more troops to Baghdad would help significantly, because the addition of 4,000 American troops has shown few results. Officers said they believed it would be more useful to add Iraqi military units.

Some U.S. military officers say they sense a growing consensus in Washington for imposing firmer deadlines and reducing U.S. troop presence. Some said they believed that would be the right move.


“The John Kerry position of timetables as a forcing mechanism for the Iraqis to get their act together is not that far off from what other people [involved in the U.S. effort in Iraq] are saying,” said one officer, referring to a proposal by the Democratic Massachusetts senator.

‘Old bulls’ as guides

A Senate Republican aide agreed there were wide agreements emerging on possible policy shifts. Speaking on condition of anonymity when discussing senators’ views, the aide said the “old bulls” who dominated the Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees would guide Senate consideration of the alternatives.

Bush has invited suggestions but has not signaled a shift in his Iraq policy. The president “keeps talking about victory,” said David Gergen, an aide to Democratic and Republican presidents. “It may be that he plans to define ‘victory’ down. Or it may be that he hasn’t decided to change the policy very much.”


One U.S. official said that the administration had entered a more pragmatic phase and would “look again at what’s workable.” Officials “were going to go this way, no matter who won, once the glare of the political campaign was over,” said the official, who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to speak on the policy.

He said the emphasis would be on looking for “some kind of Iraqi entity that holds together, that meets at least the minimum requirements for a state.”

But he cautioned that the options under discussion by outsiders had been weighed -- and several already tried out -- by the administration. For example, officials have sought ways to compromise with insurgents, he said.

Other options that seem appealing “may have too high a price,” he added, referring to the idea of negotiating with Syria and Iran. Iran, for example, could demand that the U.S. drop its effort to halt the Iranian nuclear program, he said.


With the Iraq war entering its fifth year in 2007, some of the observers said solutions would be difficult to find and implement, even for the high-powered Iraq Study Group.

“It’s not going to be a magic bullet,” said an official at the U.S. Institute of Peace, the government-funded think tank that has provided the commission with offices and staff.


Times staff writer Julian E. Barnes contributed to this report.