A bipartisan panel studying US strategic options in Iraq is expected to urge an aggressive regional diplomatic initiative that includes direct talks with Iran and Syria but sets no timetable for a military withdrawal, the New York Times reported yesterday.
Citing unnamed officials familiar with the plan, the newspaper said that while the Iraq Study Group was likely to accept the diplomatic option, it also expected a potentially divisive debate about timetables for beginning a US withdrawal.
Several officials said announcing a major withdrawal was the only way to persuade the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki to focus on creating an effective Iraqi military force, the report said.
Members of the group, including some Democrats, are discussing proposals that call for a declaration that within a specified period of time, perhaps as short as a year, a significant number of US troops should be withdrawn, regardless of whether the Iraqi government's forces are declared ready to defend the country, the Times said.
The paper said that among the ideas under consideration are embedding far more US training teams into Iraqi military units in a last-ditch improvement effort.
While the numbers are still approximate, phased withdrawal of combat troops over the next year would leave 70,000 to 80,000 US troops in the country, compared with about 150,000 now, according to the Times.
"It's not at all clear that we can reach consensus on the military questions," the paper quotes one member of the panel as saying.
The draft report, according to those who have seen it, seems to link US withdrawal to the performance of the Iraqi military, the Times said.
But details of the performance benchmarks, which were described as not specific, could not be obtained, and it is this section of the report that is most likely to be revised, the paper said.
In related news, former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein and six of his former commanders returned to a Baghdad court yesterday to face charges of crimes against humanity over a military campaign against ethnic Kurds in the late 1980s.
The former dictator, who has already received the death penalty in another trial for his role in the killings of 148 Shiite villagers after he escaped assassination in 1982, was last in court on Nov. 8.
Some lawyers in the defense team were present in the session, but Saddam's chief lawyer Khalil al-Dulaimi was absent. The defense has boycotted recent sessions in this trial.
Prosecutors say the 1988 Anfal -- Spoils of War -- campaign against Kurds included widespread use of chemical weapons, killed more than 180,000 people and destroyed hundreds of villages. Saddam and one other defendant face the most serious charge of genocide.
Chief prosecutor Munqith al-Faroon said on Sunday that he had an audiotape and documents proving Saddam himself ordered the gassing in northern Iraq.