The bipartisan Iraq Study Group reached a consensus on Wednesday on a final report that will call for a gradual pullback of the 15 American combat brigades now in Iraq but stop short of sett
Iraq Panel to Recommend Pullback of Combat Troops
By DAVID E. SANGER and DAVID S. CLOUD
11/30/06 " New York Times" -- -- WASHINGTON, Nov. 29 "” The bipartisan Iraq Study Group reached a consensus on Wednesday on a final report that will call for a gradual pullback of the 15 American combat brigades now in Iraq but stop short of setting a firm timetable for their withdrawal, according to people familiar with the panel's deliberations.
The report, unanimously approved by the 10-member panel, led by James A. Baker III and Lee H. Hamilton, is to be delivered to President Bush next week. It is a compromise between distinct paths that the group has debated since March, avoiding a specific timetable, which has been opposed by Mr. Bush, but making it clear that the American troop commitment should not be open-ended. The recommendations of the group, formed at the request of members of Congress, are nonbinding.
A person who participated in the commission's debate said that unless the government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki believed that Mr. Bush was under pressure to pull back troops in the near future, "there will be zero sense of urgency to reach the political settlement that needs to be reached."
The report recommends that Mr. Bush make it clear that he intends to start the withdrawal relatively soon, and people familiar with the debate over the final language said the implicit message was that the process should begin sometime next year.
The report leaves unstated whether the 15 combat brigades that are the bulk of American fighting forces in Iraq would be brought home, or simply pulled back to bases in Iraq or in neighboring countries. (A brigade typically consists of 3,000 to 5,000 troops.) From those bases, they would still be responsible for protecting a substantial number of American troops who would remain in Iraq, including 70,000 or more American trainers, logistics experts and members of a rapid reaction force.
As the commission wound up two and a half days of deliberation in Washington, the group said in a public statement only that a consensus had been reached and that the report would be delivered next Wednesday to President Bush, Congress and the American public. Members of the commission were warned by Mr. Baker and Mr. Hamilton not to discuss the contents of the report.
But four people involved in the debate, representing different points of view, agreed to outline its conclusions in broad terms to address what they said might otherwise be misperceptions about the findings. Some said their major concern was that the report might be too late.
"I think we've played a constructive role," one person involved in the committee's deliberations said, "but from the beginning, we've worried that this entire agenda could be swept away by events."
Even as word of the study group's conclusions began to leak out, Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said two or three battalions of American troops were being sent to Baghdad from elsewhere in Iraq to assist in shoring up security there. Another Pentagon official said the additional troops for Baghdad would be drawn from a brigade in Mosul equipped with fast-moving, armored Stryker vehicles.
As described by the people involved in the deliberations, the bulk of the report by the Baker-Hamilton group focused on a recommendation that the United States devise a far more aggressive diplomatic initiative in the Middle East than Mr. Bush has been willing to try so far, including direct engagement with Iran and Syria. Initially, those contacts might be part of a regional conference on Iraq or broader Middle East peace issues, like the Israeli-Palestinian situation, but they would ultimately involve direct, high-level talks with Tehran and Damascus.
Mr. Bush has rejected such contacts until now, and he has also rejected withdrawal, declaring in Riga, Latvia, on Tuesday that while he will show flexibility, "there's one thing I'm not going to do: I'm not going to pull the troops off the battlefield before the mission is complete."
Commission members have said in recent days that they had to navigate around such declarations, or, as one said, "We had to move the national debate from whether to stay the course to how do we start down the path out."
Their report, as described by those familiar with the compromise, may give Republicans political cover to back away from parts of the president's current strategy, even if Democrats claim that the report is short on specific deadlines.
While the White House reviews its strategy options, Pentagon planners are also looking beyond the immediate reinforcements for Baghdad to the question of whether they will need to draw more on reserve units to meet troop requirements in the Iraqi capital, military officials said. In particular, the Army is considering sending about 3,000 combat engineers from reserve units.
The proposal would not increase the overall number of troops in Baghdad, but it is controversial because it would require sending units that had already been deployed to Iraq in recent years, a step National Guard officials have been trying to avoid.
The move has not been approved by the Bush administration, but the decision could be made in the coming weeks, and the first of the additional troops may begin arriving in Iraq by next spring, officials said.
American military officials said that the forces in Iraq that were being shifted to Baghdad were to take the place of the 172nd Stryker Brigade, which is returning to its base in Alaska, and that there would be no increase in American forces in the Iraqi capital. In fact, one officer said there might be a brief decrease until the adjustments were completed.
As the Iraq Study Group finished its meetings in Washington, it heard final testimony from Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, a Democrat who has urged a specific timeline for withdrawal, and Senator John McCain of Arizona, who has called for a significant bolstering of troops to gain control of the Iraqi capital. Two former secretaries of state, Henry A. Kissinger and George P. Shultz, also spoke to the group as it debated its final conclusions.
Although the diplomatic strategy takes up the majority of the report, it was the military recommendations that prompted the most debate, people familiar with the deliberations said. They said a draft report put together under the direction of Mr. Baker and Mr. Hamilton had collided with another, circulated by other Democrats on the commission, that included an explicit timeline calling for withdrawal of the combat brigades to be completed by the end of next year. In the end, the two proposals were blended.
If Mr. Bush adopts the recommendations, far more American training teams will be embedded with Iraqi forces, a last-ditch effort to make the Iraqi Army more capable of fighting alone. That is a step already embraced in a memorandum that Stephen J. Hadley, the national security adviser, wrote to the president this month.
"I think everyone felt good about where we ended up," one person involved in the commission's debates said after the group ended its meeting. "It is neither "˜cut and run' nor "˜stay the course.' "
"Those who favor immediate withdrawal will not like it," he said, but it also "deviates significantly from the president's strategy."
The report also would offer military commanders "” and therefore the president "” great flexibility to determine the timing and phasing of the pullback of the combat brigades.
Throughout the debates, Mr. Baker, who served as secretary of state under Mr. Bush's father and was the central figure in developing the strategy to win the 2000 Florida recount for Mr. Bush, was highly reluctant to allow a timetable for withdrawal to be included in the report, participants said.
Mr. Baker cited what Mr. Bush had also called a danger: that any firm deadline would be an invitation to insurgents and sectarian groups to bide their time until the last American troops were withdrawn, then seek to overthrow the government. But Democrats on the commission also suspected that Mr. Baker was reluctant to embarrass the president by embracing a strategy Mr. Bush had repeatedly rejected.
Committee members struggled with ways, short of a deadline, to signal to the Iraqis that Washington would not prop up the government with military forces endlessly, and that if sectarian warfare continued the pressure to withdraw American forces would become overwhelming. What they ended up with appears to be a classic Washington compromise: a report that sets no explicit timetable but, between the lines, appears to have one built in.
As one senior American military officer involved in Iraq strategy said, "The question is whether it doesn't look like a timeline to Bush, and does to Maliki."
In addition to Mr. Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman, the group includes two Democrats who are veterans of the Clinton administration, Leon E. Panetta and William J. Perry, and a Clinton adviser, Vernon E. Jordan Jr. Charles S. Robb, former Democratic governor of Virginia, and Alan K. Simpson, a former Republican senator from Wyoming, are also on the panel, along with Sandra Day O'Connor, a former Supreme Court justice who was nominated by President Reagan.
Other members includes Edwin Meese III, who served as attorney general under Mr. Reagan, and Lawrence S. Eagleburger, a former secretary of state under Mr. Bush's father. Mr. Eagleburger replaced Robert M. Gates, who resigned when he was nominated to be the next secretary of defense.
If confirmed he will have to carry out whatever change of military strategy, if any, Mr. Bush embraces.
Michael R. Gordon contributed reporting.
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company