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Last Updated: Wednesday, 6 December 2006, 16:29 GMT
Iraq report sets stage for changes
By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website

James Baker and Lee Hamilton
James Baker and Lee Hamilton: their report is eagerly awaited
The publication of the Iraq Study Group report in Washington on Wednesday has set the stage for potential changes in US tactics in Iraq.

The report, chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton, has called for a shift of emphasis.

It reflects the view, increasingly held within the Bush administration itself, that basically the Americans cannot win the war themselves and that only the Iraqis can win it - though only with American help.

The unspoken element in all this is what happens if in a year's time the conclusion is that Iraqis cannot win it either.

The idea is that responsibility for fighting is increasingly taken off American shoulders and laid on those of the Iraqis.

'Not winning'

The need for new thinking was highlighted by a comment from the prospective new Defence Secretary Robert Gates, an ex-CIA Director.

Asked at a Senate Armed Services Committee nomination hearing on Tuesday if the US was winning in Iraq, he replied: "No, sir." The committee hearing was as gloomy as his comment.

The report says that US combat troops should be drawn down significantly by 2008, perhaps down to half the current force level of 140,000.

A target date is needed, the group argues, because the Iraqi government needs that incentive.

American troops would be increasingly embedded with Iraqi units to reinforce and train them. US garrisons would also be left behind to act as strike forces.

And the Iraqi government should be told that US support would be undermined if the government did not meet certain benchmarks on improving security.

'Cut and stay'

The shift aims to accommodate two elements: a change in role for US forces but no "cut and run" strategy, which would be rejected outright by President Bush.

The report suggests a compromise - "cut and stay".

Whether Mr Bush would accept the idea of a timetable for a draw-down, even if linked to conditions on the ground, is not clear.

He has said he will not use the Baker-Hamilton report to plan a "graceful exit" from Iraq. "We're going to stay in Iraq to get the job done," he said last week. That means of course at least until the next presidential election in 2008.

President Bush perhaps hinted after meeting Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki in Jordan that even his patience had its limits.

"In the long-term, security in Iraq requires reconciliation among Iraq's different ethnic and religious communities," he said.

Decision in weeks

The concept of Iraqi responsibility ties in with the aims of the Bush administration to hand over more to the Iraqis without pulling out, so some kind of move in this direction can be expected when Mr Bush makes his decision in a few weeks time.

It will reflect the view that basically the Americans cannot win the war themselves and that only the Iraqis can win it

The idea of a shift in the role of US has been current in the administration for a time. In a memo written just before he resigned, the outgoing Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, called for a "major adjustment" that would reassign "some significant portion of the US troops currently in Iraq".

President Bush will be considering not just the Baker-Hamilton report but input from the Pentagon and commanders in the field.

Indeed, in his radio address last Saturday, he distanced himself from the Iraq Study Group report by indicating that it was just one of many sources of advice he is considering.

Iran and Syria

The Iraq Study Group also recommends in some way that Iraq's neighbours, including Iran and Syria, be drawn in to help stabilise the country.

However, the extent to which the administration is willing to support this remains to be seen. US public rhetoric against Iran in particular remains strong.

The Iraqi prime minister himself seems to be taking the lead on this, calling on Tuesday for a regional conference "to reinforce security and stability".

At the nomination hearing for Robert Gates, the incoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee Democratic Senator Carl Levin said that Mr Gates faced "picking up the pieces of failed policies".

Mr Gates, who sat on the Iraq Study Group himself, told the committee: "All options are on the table".

He did not call for a timed withdrawal, as Senator Levin wants, though he did say there could be a "dramatic" reduction in US forces.

Paul.Reynolds-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk




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