The Iraq Study Group, which wrapped up eight months of deliberations yesterday, has reached a consensus and will call for a major withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, shifting the U.S. role from combat to support and advising, according to a source familiar with the deliberations.
But the recommendation includes a series of conditions and qualifications that would govern any drawdown of forces, the source said. "It describes a process by which combat brigades could be pulled out, but there wasn't a specific timetable on it," he said. The source demanded anonymity because members of the bipartisan panel have been pledged to secrecy until the report is officially issued Dec. 6.
The issue of a timeline for drawing down troops -- both a specific date to begin a withdrawal and the pace -- had been major points of contention within the panel. The Bush administration has firmly rejected specifying a date for withdrawal, but Democrats have favored setting a time frame as a way to put pressure on the Iraqi government.
The recommendations in the still-secret report were agreed to after three days of closed-door discussions. The report, which is about 100 pages, will offer a comprehensive look at regional political and security issues as well as the troubled U.S. deployment in Iraq, according to sources close to the panel.
For weeks, the panel has debated reaching out to both Syria and Iran, an approach that the Bush administration has so far firmly rejected. Commission members have also backed the idea of a regional conference to bring all the neighbors into the process of stabilizing Iraq.
Contents of the panel's report were disclosed yesterday evening by the New York Times.
Under the recommendations of the commission, led by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former congressman Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), the emphasis of the U.S. military presence in Iraq would shift from fighting the insurgency and containing sectarian violence to backing up Iraqi security forces dealing with those problems.
Shift in emphasis
This approach would place less emphasis on combat operations and more on logistics, intelligence and training and advising Iraqi units. Also, a large residual combat force would be required to protect all the personnel involved in those operations and to provide a security guarantee to the Iraqi government.
Thus, even if the combat forces were withdrawn, the person familiar with the group's thinking noted, the recommendation envisions keeping in Iraq a "substantial" U.S. military force.
Some people knowledgeable about the group's deliberations said it might be possible in a year or two to halve the U.S. military presence, to about 70,000 troops. Earlier reports that said that the group simply had decided to call for withdrawing combat forces from Iraq were "garbled," the source familiar with the panel's recommendations added. "It wasn't as specific as that, and it was a lot more conditional," he said. He declined to discuss those conditions.
"We reached a consensus, which in itself is remarkable," said another source close to the 10-member panel of prominent Republicans and Democrats. Divisions had been deep in the run-up to this week's final deliberations.
The findings dovetail with recommendations being considered by the military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, who are conducting their own review of Iraq policy. That group is leaning toward an option that involves a brief surge of troops in Iraq, followed by a partial drawdown and a shift from combat operations to training and advising, according to sources familiar with the process. Troops would remain in Iraq for five to 10 years under this option, which is known within the military as "go long."
Timing could be key
President Bush said earlier this fall that he looked forward to receiving the study group's report to bring fresh perspective to the Iraq crisis. But as some of the options under consideration began to leak out, the White House also ordered its own crash policy review, which began two weeks ago. The administration does not want to be in the position of having to adapt all of the Iraq Study Group report's recommendations, U.S. officials say, and its own review will provide an opportunity to pick and choose options.
The release of its report next week will combine with the Dec. 5 Senate confirmation hearings for Bush's nominee for defense secretary, former study group member Robert M. Gates, to bring new emphasis to the intensifying debate over the future of the U.S. presence in Iraq.
The issue now may be timing. Even expert advisers to the panel expressed concern that the report may be too late. Congressional sources voiced similar fears yesterday. "I don't think we have a great deal of time," said Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.). "I think there's still an opportunity, but that opportunity is rapidly closing on us."
The panel, which began deliberations in April, was organized jointly by four think tanks and funded with $1 million from Congress. It is run by the U.S. Institute of Peace.
The group consists of five Democrats -- Hamilton, former Virginia governor and senator Charles S. Robb, former defense secretary William J. Perry, Clinton confidant Vernon Jordan, and former Clinton chief of staff Leon E. Panetta -- along with five Republicans: Baker, former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Connor, Reagan administration attorney general Edwin Meese III, former senator Alan K. Simpson (Wyo.), and former secretary of state Lawrence S. Eagleburger, who was a late replacement for Gates.
Forty experts from fields such as warfare, the Middle East, reconstruction and Islamic militancy were asked to put together options for the group but did not take part in the policy debates.
The group also interviewed Bush and former president Bill Clinton and spoke with other distinguished outsiders, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem and Iranian U.N. Ambassador Javad Zarif.
It traveled to Iraq only once, and most members generally stayed within the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad.