Iraq panel to call for US to trade troops for diplomacy

By Rupert Cornwell in Washington

The Independent

Published: 01 December 2006

A high-level bipartisan panel will recommend a "gradual but meaningful" pull-back of US combat forces in Iraq, and call for a stepped-up diplomatic effort by Washington, including direct contacts with Iraq's neighbours Iran and Syria, to try and restore stability to the country.

The proposals will be unveiled on Wednesday by the Iraq Study Group (ISG), the 10-member group headed by the former Republican secretary of state James Baker. But its main conclusions have already started to leak out.

The timing and shape of the pull-back has been left deliberately vague, reflecting the panel's view that to set a firm timetable would play into the hands of insurgents fighting both for control of the country and to force out the US.

But implicit in the recommendations, according to sources quoted by The New York Times, is that the reconfiguration should start in 2007. The report is said not to specify whether US troops should return to their bases in Iraq, redeploy to other countries, or return home.

The thrust of the ISG's conclusions has been known for some time. But however imprecise, they could have great weight, as political pressure here intensifies for a phased withdrawal of US forces, and the Bush administration casts around with increasing desperation for an exit formula.

The relative speed and smoothness with which the five Democrats and five Republicans in the group have come up with an agreed strategy also makes it harder to ignore, or dismiss. It could thus give White House cover for a major change in policy, especially on the issue of direct engagement with Iran and Syria, hitherto resisted by President Bush.

In Amman yesterday, however, Mr Bush appeared to give not an inch, saying that he supported the view of Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi Prime Minister, that Iraq could handle its own affairs "and that they don't need foreign interference from neighbours that will be destabilising the country".