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Last Updated: Wednesday, 6 December 2006, 21:26 GMT
Iraq Study Group's harsh verdict
By Adam Brookes
BBC News, Washington

President Bush's dreams of a stable, democratic Iraq have been ailing for a long time.

ISG co-chairs James Baker (left) and Lee Hamilton
The study group tried to point a way forward for US Iraq policy
On Wednesday, James Baker and the Iraq Study Group presided over their demise.

Even the report's title, "The Way Forward - A New Approach", implied the failure of America's project in Iraq.

Its opening words have an air of despondency: "The situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating."

Mr Baker's evaluation is harsh, and he offers no hope of radical renewal.

His report appears geared to averting catastrophe, but even then he says no path can guarantee success.

The report has three main thrusts: a "new diplomatic offensive", which would draw Iraq's neighbours, including Iran and Syria, in to the search for stability in Iraq; a rethinking of America's military priorities; and the renewal of a sense of political purpose among Americans.

Eye-catching, but vague

The two recommendations out of 79 which will attract most attention in America are these: the diplomatic engagement of Iran and Syria - despite the obvious difficulties in doing so - and the handing over of responsibility for security in Iraq to Iraqi forces by the end of next year.

US combat forces, the report says, could start to withdraw in early 2008.

Iraqi soldier on the streets of Baghdad
There is an implied threat to leave Iraq to sort itself out
Yet the recommendations appear at times to be vague.

They speak of building "international consensus" and "engaging Iran and Syria constructively" but provide few specifics as to how other countries might be induced to co-operate on Iraq.

The text speaks airily of considering "incentives and disincentives" to gain commitment from Syria and Iran.

For Iraq itself, a threat hangs in the air.

If the government of Nouri Maliki fails to reach demanding milestones in politics and security, the United States, says the report, should reduce economic and security assistance.

The Study Group is threatening to weaken a weak government
Anthony Cordesman, CSIS
Yet there is little discussion of the ramifications that might follow such a move.

Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in early reaction, was scathing.

"Simply calling for a weak and divided Iraqi government to act in the face of all the forces tearing Iraq apart is almost feckless," he wrote.

"The Study Group is threatening to weaken a weak government."

Much of the report's content echoes the discussion among American strategists and military thinkers that has been taking place for the past year.

Few of its ideas - such as increasing the number of US military advisers in the Iraqi armed forces - are original.

Pressure on Bush

But their articulation in such a high-profile, feverishly anticipated fashion places great pressure on the Bush administration to rethink Iraq policy.

President Bush thanks ISG co-chairs Lee Hamilton (left) and James Baker
Mr Bush thanked the authors - but will he listen to them?
For his part, the president, sources close to the administration say, does not want to be captive to the recommendations laid out by Mr Baker and his cohort. The Iraq Study Group is a creation of Congress, not of the president himself.

So the president will point to his own policy review, which is being carried out by the National Security Council, and to another in the Pentagon as alternative sources of advice.

The role of the new secretary of defence, Robert Gates, will also be crucial in forming Mr Bush's thinking on any change of direction in Iraq.

In all, the report will be central to the creation of a new political atmosphere in America - helping to define the debate and speeding up the process of finding a new future for Iraq policy.

But what impact its recommendations might have on the ground in Iraq is much less certain.

One intelligence official said recently: "Whichever way they turn now in Iraq, policy doesn't come out right."

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