EVEN before its release, a high-profile advisory panel’s report on US policy alternatives in Iraq is generating much excitement but some worry that its main recommendations will fall short of expectations and may be ignored by President George W Bush.
The Iraq Study Group plans to roll out its report on Wednesday but details are leaking out on conclusions reached in secret by the panel’s five Democrats and five Republicans addressing America’s most immediate foreign policy crisis.
The aim has been to produce a bipartisan framework for Bush, his Republican Party and opposition Democrats to change course as Iraq descends into civil war.
‘‘Expectations are out of control’’ for what the panel, chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton, might achieve, lamented one source close to the deliberations.
Major proposals reported so far include a US military shift from combat toward more of a support role in Iraq over the next year and more aggressive diplomacy including a regional conference that could lead to direct US talks with Iran and Syria. Those are controversial but not radical ideas and some experts question whether the commission’s work may fall flat. That would be unusual for Baker, a master political strategist.
‘‘Insofar as they make a clear suggestion that we must abandon Iraq they will be ignored because the president has said we will not,’’ said Danielle Pletka of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, where experts strongly backed the Iraq war but now criticise the post war effort.
Democratic Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, incoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee who backs a phased withdrawal of US forces, said the redeployment proposal ‘‘would send a message that the US presence is not open-ended, and would move away from the administration policy that essentially provides Iraq is with a blank check on the presence of our troops’’.
Baker and Hamilton believe Bush erred in isolating Iran and Syria, which the United States accuses of fuelling bloodshed in Iraq, and have endorsed engaging America’s enemies.
Many experts doubt Iran and Syria would help Washington restore stability in Iraq and even those who favour dialogue say it may be too late. The West accuses Iran of pursuing nuclear weapons, but Tehran insists its aim is energy production. Aaron Miller, a former senior State Department official who helped Baker organise the 1991 Middle East peace conference in Madrid, said he did not object to talks but dialogue with Iran and Syria were ‘‘keys to empty rooms’’.
The possibility of an international conference, especially if it includes US ally Israel and addresses Lebanon and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iraq, also has spurred debate. One eagerly awaited section of the report deals with Iraq’s political structure.
‘‘I do not believe the recommendations are going to be dramatic enough to resolve the violence in Iraq because they are not likely to recommend a wholesale restructuring of Iraq’s government to bring about more balance between Sunnis and Shi’ites,’’ said Middle East expert Kenneth Katzman.
A congressional source said the panel was expected to endorse building up support for a strong Iraqi central government and Prime Minister Nuri al- Maliki. That would largely continue existing US policy and would fail, he said. Democratic Senator Joseph Biden has argued for backing a switch to a federal systemfor Iraq that would retain a central government while giving Shi’ite, Sunni and Kurdish groups ‘‘breathing room’’ in their own regions.
Uneasy about what the panel might recommend, Bush directed the Pentagon and State Department to also do policy reviews, visited Jordan for talks with Maliki and repeated his strong opposition to phased withdrawal.
Experts say Bushwas trying to show diplomatic movement and create options for himself in advance of the panel’s report.
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