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Bipartisan group expected to urge Iraq pullback

The commander of coalition forces in northern Iraq said Friday that four Iraqi army divisions in his area will be put under Baghdad’s control by next March, just the kind of transfer that a U.S. study commission reportedly is ready to embrace.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The commander of coalition forces in northern Iraq said Friday that four Iraqi army divisions in his area will be put under Baghdad’s control by next March, just the kind of transfer that a U.S. study commission reportedly is ready to embrace.

“I can certainly see great opportunity to reduce the amount of combat forces on the ground” in the north “and turn more responsibility over to Iraqi security forces,” Mixon told Pentagon reporters in a videoconference from his headquarters near Tikrit. He said that even after this transition is complete, U.S. troops likely would continue to support Iraqi forces and conduct combat operations against al-Qaida “operatives.”

In the Iraq Study Group report expected to be released next Wednesday, the U.S. government would be called upon to rely more on diplomacy than deadlines in its Iraq policy. But that would rob many war critics of the impetus they wanted to force a speedy, sizable U.S. troop withdrawal from the battlefield.

The study team headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Rep. Lee Hamilton also recommends a gradual reduction of U.S. forces and a more aggressive regional diplomacy, but sets no timetable, according to officials familiar with the group’s deliberations. The report could give President Bush political cover to shift tactics in the increasingly unpopular war.

Withdrawal by early 2008?
Some media reports suggested that the commission would recommend withdrawing nearly all U.S. combat forces from Iraq by early 2008, leaving behind only those troops needed to train and support the Iraqis. The reports described the recommendation as goal rather than a firm timetable.

At least some U.S. commanders in Iraq already are shifting a growing number of their troops from combat to support roles, while giving the Iraqi Ministry of Defense more control over Iraq troops.

Mixon spoke to this, specifically, on Friday.

He said he is on track to place all four Iraqi army divisions in his area under Iraqi control by March. Mixon was asked about the study group’s expected recommendation to transition to Iraqi security control within a year or so.

White House national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley noted on Thursday that the president has solicited a separate in-house review of Iraq policy. Bush probably would make any changes or decisions arising from the various reports in “weeks rather than months,” Hadley said.

“It’s really going to be when the president is comfortable in his own mind as to where he wants to go” and has coordinated with Iraqi leaders on a “common plan,” Hadley said.

Members of Congress seized on the report as their own benchmark for success.

“The fact that they reached a consensus poses a challenge to the Congress to try and reach its own consensus with the president,” outgoing Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, R-Va., said.

Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., said the report could foster “growing bipartisan support in this country.”

Support structure for Iraqi forces
Under the panel’s recommendations, U.S. troops could be pulled back slowly from the front lines, acting as more of a support structure for the Iraqi security forces, officials said. Several officials spoke about the report on condition of anonymity because the panel’s deliberations were private.

Yet advisers to the panel and others aware of its work also noted that many of the recommendations will not differ greatly from either current policy or from ideas already under debate within the administration.

Bush repeatedly has rejected a wholesale troop withdrawal or what he calls artificial deadlines, vowing that he would not “pull the troops off the battlefield before the mission is complete.”

“This business about a graceful exit just simply has no realism to it at all,” Bush said Thursday.

Congressional Democrats were thrust back into power in the House and Senate in midterm elections last month widely viewed as voters calling for change in Iraqi policy. Democrats hoped the commission’s report would give them leverage in seeking a new course in Iraq. They generally want troop withdrawals to begin sometime in 2007 but are divided over how many troops to withdraw, and when and where to reassign them.

Report: Sunni outreach may be abandoned
The Washington Post, meanwhile, reported Friday that the U.S. was considering whether to abandon efforts to bring Sunni insurgents into the political process to stabilize Iraq. The concern is that the outreach to Sunni dissidents has failed and may be alienating the country’s majority Shiites, who dominate the government. The report cited unidentified sources familiar with the proposal.

The Iraq Study Group’s approximately 100-page report will indicate the presence of U.S. troops is part of the problem in Iraq, one official said. The panel will demand more accountability from the Iraqi government, although it is not clear how progress would be measured, the official said.

The congressionally chartered panel, whose recommendations are not binding, will encourage Bush to engage U.S. adversaries Syria and Iran to improve regional dialogue, several officials said. That outreach could include a regional conference among all of Iraq’s neighbors or a wider gathering of Middle East nations that also would address separate Middle East peace issues.

A senior U.S. official who participated in the deliberations said the recommendations would include resumption of Middle East peace talks.

The administration has not completely ruled out diplomacy with Iran and Syria, but has been reluctant to enter talks that could be seen as reward for what Washington calls bad behavior.

The report suggests that Bush give Iraqi leaders notice that America’s military commitment is not open-ended. The panel’s Republican and Democratic members could not agree on bolder proposals. Options to quickly bring home a large percentage of the 140,000 U.S. forces supporting the fragile government in Baghdad or set a clear timeline for withdrawal were on the table.

Without firm benchmarks for a U.S. military withdrawal, the recommendations would essentially back up Bush’s policy of using security conditions in Iraq, not a calendar, to guide battlefield decisions. The administration long has said U.S. forces will stand down as Iraqi forces are able to stand up.