President Bush's policy in Iraq "is not working," a high-level commission said bluntly on Wednesday, prodding the administration to embrace diplomacy to stabilize the country and allow withdrawal of most combat troops by early 2008.
After four years of war and the deaths of more than 2,900 U.S. troops, the situation is "grave and deteriorating," and the United States' ability "to influence events within Iraq is diminishing," the commission warned in an unsparing report.
It recommended the United States reduce "political, military or economic support" for Iraq if the government in Baghdad cannot make substantial progress toward providing for its own security.
President Bush received the report in an early morning meeting at the White House with commission members. He pledged to treat each proposal seriously and act in a "timely fashion."
He was flanked by the commission's co-chairmen, former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, and former Rep. Lee Hamilton in a remarkable scene — a president praising the work of a group that had just concluded his policy had led to chaos.
"Many Americans are understandably dissatisfied," Hamilton said later at a news conference that marked the formal release of the results of the commission's eight-month labors.
"There is no magic bullet," said Baker.
The report painted a grim picture of Iraq nearly four years after U.S. forces toppled Saddam Hussein. It urged Bush to embrace steps he has thus far rejected, including involving Syria and Iran in negotiations over Iraq's future.
It warned that if the situation continues to deteriorate, there is a risk of a "slide toward chaos (that) could trigger the collapse of Iraq's government and a humanitarian catastrophe."
"Neighboring countries could intervene. ... The global standing of the United States could be diminished. Americans could become more polarized," commissioners said.
With diplomacy under way, the report said, the U.S. should increase the number of combat and other troops that are embedded with and supporting Iraqi Army units.
"As these actions proceed, U.S. combat forces could begin to move out of Iraq," it said. "By the first quarter of 2008, subject to unexpected developments in the security situation on the ground, all combat brigades not necessary for force protection could be out of Iraq."
More broadly, the commission recommended a renewed push to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, saying the United States cannot otherwise achieve its goals in the Middle East.
Baker, Hamilton and the other members of the commission traveled to the Capitol from the White House to present their findings to senior lawmakers. The report makes 79 separate recommendations on Iraq policy.
"If the president is serious about the need for change in Iraq, he will find Democrats ready to work with him in a bipartisan fashion to find a way to end the war as quickly as possible," said Rep. Nancy Pelosi (news, bio, voting record), the California Democrat who is in line to become speaker when the new Congress convenes in January.
The recommendations came at a pivotal time, with Bush under domestic pressure to change course and with the new, Democratic-controlled Congress certain to cast a skeptical look at administration policy.
Additionally, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, the architect of the administration's war policy, has resigned. His replacement, Robert Gates, is on track for Senate confirmation this week after a remarkable assessment of his own — that the United States is not winning the war.
Bush has rejected establishing timetables for withdrawing the 140,000 U.S. troops and has said he isn't looking for "some kind of graceful exit out of Iraq."
There was no letup Wednesday in the killing in Iraq, where a mortar attack killed at least eight people and wounded dozens in a secondhand goods market. Police said the shelling was followed closely by a suicide bombing in the Sadr City Shiite district of the capital.
It was the type of violence that has led many to declare that Iraq is in the throes of a civil war — an assessment that Bush has refused to accept.
By whatever name, Baker, Hamilton and the other eight members of the commission said the status quo was unacceptable.
"Violence is increasing in scope and lethality. It is fed by a Sunni Arab insurgency, Shiite militias, death squads, al-Qaida and widespread criminality. Sectarian conflict is the principal challenge to stability," the report said.
Bush said the report "gives a very tough assessment of the situation in Iraq. It is a report that brings some really very interesting proposals, and we will take every proposal seriously and we will act in a timely fashion."
He also urged members of Congress to give serious consideration to the recommendations.
"While they won't agree with every proposal, and we probably won't agree with every proposal, it nevertheless is an opportunity to come together and to work together on this important issue," he said.
The commission's recommendation to have U.S. forces embedded with Iraqi units reflects an approach the military already has been emphasizing in recent months. But administration officials say Iraqis are not yet ready to go it alone against the insurgency.
U.S. allies in the region, including the powerful Sunni leadership in Saudi Arabia, say the Arab-Israeli conflict underlies other Mideast problems and that rancor from the impasse makes other issues harder to solve.
The commission recommended that a "diplomatic offensive" be aimed at building an international consensus for stability in Iraq, and that it include every country in the region.
The United States accuses Syria and Iran of bankrolling terrorism and stirring up trouble in the region. The United States has had no diplomatic ties to Iran for nearly three decades, and pulled its ambassador from Syria last year.
Still, the commission said, "Given the ability of Iran and Syria to influence events within Iraq and their interest in avoiding chaos in Iraq, the United States should try to engage them constructively."
Ahead of the report's release, the White House said it would consider talking to Iran and Syria if the commission recommended it.
Yet the administration's overall tone has been one of skepticism about reaching accommodation with Tehran and Damascus. Administration officials have suggested there is more to lose than to gain by rewarding Iran and Syria with high-profile discourse with American diplomats, and warn that Iran in particular could try to use contact with U.S. officials to gain leverage in ongoing separate diplomacy over its nuclear program.
Here are excerpts from portions of the Iraq Study Group report, which was being released Wednesday:
"The situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating. There is no path that can guarantee success, but the prospects can be improved."
"Our most important recommendations call for new and enhanced diplomatic and political efforts in Iraq and the region, and a change in the primary mission of U.S. forces in Iraq that will enable the United States to begin to move its combat forces out of Iraq responsibly. We believe that these two recommendations are equally important and reinforce one another. If they are effectively implemented, and if the Iraqi government moves forward with national reconciliation, Iraqis will have an opportunity for a better future, terrorism will be dealt a blow, stability will be enhanced in an important part of the world, and America's credibility, interests and values will be protected."
"If the situation continues to deteriorate, the consequences could be severe. A slide toward chaos could trigger the collapse of Iraq's government and a humanitarian catastrophe. Neighboring countries could intervene. Sunni-Shia clashes could spread. Al-Qaida could win a propaganda victory and expand its base of operations. The global standing of the United States could be diminished. Americans could become more polarized."
"During the past nine months we have considered a full range of approaches for moving forward. All have flaws. Our recommended course has shortcomings, but we firmly believe that it includes the best strategies and tactics to positively influence the outcome in Iraq and the region."
"The United States should immediately launch a new diplomatic offensive to build an international consensus for stability in Iraq and the region. This diplomatic effort should include every country that has an interest in avoiding a chaotic Iraq, including all of Iraq's neighbors. Iraq's neighbors and key states in and outside the region should form a support group to reinforce security and national reconciliation within Iraq, neither of which Iraq can achieve on its own."
"Given the ability of Iran and Syria to influence events within Iraq and their interest in avoiding chaos in Iraq, the United States should try to engage them constructively. In seeking to influence the behavior of both countries, the United States has disincentives and incentives available. Iran should stem the flow of arms and training to Iraq, respect Iraq's sovereignty and territorial integrity, and use its influence over Iraqi Shia groups to encourage national reconciliation. The issue of Iran's nuclear programs should continue to be dealt with by the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany. Syria should control its border with Iraq to stem the flow of funding, insurgents and terrorists in and out of Iraq.
"The United States cannot achieve its goals in the Middle East unless it deals directly with the Arab-Israeli conflict and regional instability. There must be a renewed and sustained commitment by the United States to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace on all fronts: Lebanon, Syria and President Bush's June 2002 commitment to a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine. This commitment must include direct talks with, by and between Israel, Lebanon, Palestinians — those who accept Israel's right to exist — and Syria.
"As the United States develops its approach toward Iraq and the Middle East, the United States should provide additional political, economic and military support for Afghanistan, including resources that might become available as combat forces are moved out of Iraq."
"The primary mission of U.S. forces in Iraq should evolve to one of supporting the Iraqi army, which would take over primary responsibility for combat operations. By the first quarter of 2008, subject to unexpected developments in the security situation on the ground, all combat brigades not necessary for force protection could be out of Iraq. At that time, U.S. combat forces in Iraq could be deployed only in units embedded with Iraqi forces, in rapid-reaction and special operations teams and in training, equipping, advising, force protection and search and rescue. Intelligence and support efforts would continue. A vital mission of those rapid reaction and special operations forces would be to undertake strikes against al-Qaida in Iraq."
Here are excerpts from a letter from Iraq Study Group co-chairs James A. Baker III and Lee Hamilton:
"There is no magic formula to solve the problems of Iraq. However, there are actions that can be taken to improve the situation and protect American interests. Many Americans are dissatisfied, not just with the situation in Iraq but with the state of our political debate regarding Iraq. Our political leaders must build a bipartisan approach to bring a responsible conclusion to what is now a lengthy and costly war. Our country deserves a debate that prizes substance over rhetoric, and a policy that is adequately funded and sustainable. The president and Congress must work together. Our leaders must be candid and forthright with the American people in order to win their support."
"No one can guarantee that any course of action in Iraq at this point will stop sectarian warfare, growing violence or a slide toward chaos. If current trends continue, the potential consequences are severe. Because of the role and responsibility of the United States in Iraq, and the commitments our government has made, the United States has special obligations. Our country must address as best it can Iraq's many problems. The United States has long-term relationships and interests at stake in the Middle East, and needs to stay engaged."
"In this consensus report, the 10 members of the Iraq Study Group present a new approach because we believe there is a better way forward. All options have not been exhausted. We believe it is still possible to pursue different policies that can give Iraq an opportunity for a better future, combat terrorism, stabilize a critical region of the world and protect America's credibility, interests and values. Our report makes it clear that the Iraqi government and the Iraqi people also must act to achieve a stable and hopeful future."