An influential bipartisan panel is expected to recommend that US forces withdraw from combat over the next year and focus on training Iraqis, offering US President George W. Bush the outlines of an exit strategy from the unpopular war.
The high-profile Iraq Study Group planned to release its recommendations late yesterday on a new Iraq strategy after briefing Bush and congressional leaders.
The bipartisan commission is expected to advise gradually phasing the mission of US troops in Iraq from combat to training and supporting Iraqi units, with a goal of pulling back US combat troops by early 2008. It is also expected to urge a more energetic effort to involve Iraq's neighbors in ending violence there, including Iran and Syria, which the US considers pariah states.
The commission also will recommend that Bush threaten to reduce economic and military support for the Iraqi government if it does not meet certain benchmarks for improving security, the Washington Post reported yesterday.
Bush has rejected establishing timetables for withdrawing troops and has said he was not looking for "some kind of graceful exit out of Iraq."
The Iraq Study Group -- made up of five Republicans and five Democrats -- is led by Bush family friend and Republican James Baker III, a former secretary of state, and former Democratic Representative Lee Hamilton. It is the first major bipartisan assessment of US options in Iraq and has captured the attention of lawmakers and voters who saw last month's Democratic congressional election sweep as a rejection of Bush's steadfast commitment to the conflict.
The report comes as Robert Gates, who is coasting toward Senate confirmation as replacement for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, told lawmakers a fresh approach was needed in Iraq.
The commission's findings will add political momentum for a new policy in Iraq, putting Bush on the defensive. Since the election, Bush himself has acknowledged the need for new approaches to the war and has initiated an administration assessment of options in Iraq.
Yet he has also said that the panel's voice will be just one of many on which he will base his decisions. He has warned against a hasty withdrawal of US troops in Iraq, while congressional Democrats say some troops should leave right away to pressure the Iraqi government to boost its own efforts.
"We're going to give it a careful review," White House press secretary Tony Snow said on Tuesday. "As we have mentioned, there are other ongoing studies within the administration."
"There will be some disagreements but a lot we can work with," a senior administration official said without giving details. The official said Bush's reaction was "generally pretty positive." The official refused to be identified because the report was not due to be released until yesterday.
The Iraq war has surpassed the duration of US involvement in World War II, and US deaths have passed the 2,900 mark. A relentless insurgency and the added complication of increased fighting between religious and ethnic factions have raised questions about whether Iraq is embroiled in a civil war and whether the US-backed government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will ever be able to calm the country.
One in three approve
Polls show that only about one in three Americans approve of Bush's handling of Iraq.
Lawmakers, including Republican Senator John Warner, say they are eager to hear outside voices on Iraq and step up congressional oversight. Warner, a Bush loyalist and Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, on Tuesday called on the president to consult with Democrats as well as Republicans on Iraq. Warner also urged Gates not to try to sidestep Congress or hold back honest advice for the president.
"You simply have to be fearless" when it comes to this job, Warner told the defense secretary nominee.
As the Armed Services panel peppered Gates with questions, several House Republicans met Bush to discuss Iraq.
In a brief phone interview, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter, a Republican, said the president "made it clear he intends to be successful in Iraq and he's not going to be in the business of effecting some scheduled withdrawal."
Bush lunched alone on Tuesday with Baker, who briefed him on the commission's conclusions.
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