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Iraq panel co-chairs reject failure criticism

Leaders of a bipartisan panel on Iraq sought to deflect criticism Sunday that their new war strategy endorses defeat, saying the Bush administration must push Mideast diplomacy or face "major-league problems."
/ Source: The Associated Press

Leaders of a bipartisan panel on Iraq sought to deflect criticism Sunday that their new war strategy endorses defeat, saying the Bush administration must push Mideast diplomacy or face "major-league problems."

In Sunday appearances, former GOP Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton shot back at some Republican critics who had denounced the bipartisan panel's proposals as a "recipe for retreat."

"We're not going to win this war militarily; we're going to win it politically," Baker said. "There must be a political reconciliation among the warring factions in Iraq or we're going to continue to have major-league problems."

"It's no answer to say just because it's tough we don't do it," Baker said.

Their comments came amid renewed fire Sunday from some in the Middle East who have rejected the group's call for concessions with Syria.

Administration cool to report
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani harshly criticized the bipartisan report as "very dangerous," saying it would undermine Iraq's sovereignty because it could allow thousands of officials from Saddam Hussein's ousted party to return to their jobs.

Outgoing Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, in a surprise trip to Iraq this weekend, also counseled against a more immediate withdrawal, saying Americans "need to have the patience to see this task through to success."

"The consequences of failure are unacceptable," he said.

Bush has already been publicly cool to the panel's key proposals - which seek direct engagement with Iran and Syria and a pullback of all American combat brigades by early 2008 - and has suggested the Baker-Hamilton plan falls short of a full victory.

Bush discussions continue
On Monday, Bush goes to the State Department for a presentation on diplomatic and political options, and then meets in the Oval Office with independent Iraq experts. On Tuesday, the president confers in a video conference with senior military commanders and Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, the top U.S. diplomat in Iraq. On Wednesday, he meets with senior defense officials at the Pentagon.

As part of his discussions, Bush is said to be considering alternative proposals such as a short-term increase of troops to secure Baghdad, scaling back the military mission to focus almost exclusively on hunting al-Qaida terrorists and a new strategy of outreach to all of Iraq's factions.

During their Sunday appearances, Baker and Hamilton acknowledged that their plan seeks to "conclude this war" but that it also supports Bush's goal of an Iraq government that can defend and sustain itself.

Victory or conclusion
"It all depends on what you mean by victory," Hamilton said. "What we're saying in this report is we want to conclude this war. ...We do not want American forces involved in sectarian clashes and violence. That's not our business."

Hamilton also said that the proposal supported by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to boost combat troops temporarily was unsustainable.

"If you do that, you are going to get the Iraqis to react by saying, 'Oh, well, let's let the Americans take it. That's exactly what we don't want. We want the Iraqis at the point of the spear, not the American forces," Hamilton said.

Sectarian target practice
Several lawmakers on Sunday stopped short of fully embracing the Iraq Study Group's recommendations. Last week, McCain and Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., were particularly critical, saying the plan for a gradual pullout was asking for defeat.

"I am for fighting the war on terrorism against jihadists," Smith said Sunday, who called for an immediate pullout. He also denounced the Bush administration for a war in which U.S. troops have become "target practice in the middle of a sectarian strike."

"When you get to being police in a sectarian civil war, that's not what Americans enlisted for," Smith said.

Baker and Hamilton expressed hope that Bush would ultimately embrace the Iraq Study Group's proposals.

But Baker also made clear that his public lobbying efforts were now over, and he quickly dismissed conjecture that Bush might be willing to solicit Baker's help in coordinating diplomatic efforts in the Middle East.

"He won't, and that's a hypothetical, and I don't answer hypothetical questions," Baker said.

Baker and Hamilton appeared on "Fox News Sunday," NBC's "Meet the Press," CBS' "Face the Nation" and CNN's "Late Edition"; Smith spoke on ABC's "This Week."