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Some study recommendations run counter to Iraq's political reality

BAGHDAD, Iraq—The proposals made Wednesday by the Iraq Study Group would require many Iraqi politicians to abandon years of work and some of their most deeply held positions in an effort to bring an end to violence in the country.

Even then, success would be uncertain. Some of the group's recommendations already have been tried in Iraq, without positive results.

The U.S. already has spent billions trying to rebuild Iraq's infrastructure, its ambassador has invested hours setting deadlines for the Iraqi government to take more control over its state and the militias are so emboldened that not even the top cleric here can rein them in.

Although the group's visits to Baghdad—exclusively in the heavily fortified Green Zone—were brief, the 142-page report's assessment of the situation here is sound. It correctly portrays the complexity of rivalries between Sunni and Shiite Muslims as well as among Shiites. It accurately pegs Iraq's security and economic difficulties and offers a refreshingly honest assessment of the country's army and police force.

But its proposals are short on how U.S. policymakers and their Iraqi counterparts might overcome the obstacles that have blocked progress.

The breadth of the panel's recommendations is daunting. Full implementation would mean reaching out to a staggering number of nations, from courting the United States' closest Arab allies—Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan—to sitting down with its most hostile enemies, Syria and Iran.

And for good measure: reinvigorating Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations, bolstering Lebanon's fragile democratic government, helping Turkey deal with Kurdish rebels and giving the European Union a greater role in Iraq's reconstruction efforts.

The report's call for Israel to give up the Golan Heights in exchange for Syrian cooperation may not be as farfetched as it might seem.

While Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has rebuffed recent peace overtures from Syrian President Bashar Assad, Avi Dichter, Israel's minister of internal security, has suggested giving up the Golan Heights. Steven Heydemann, a nonresident senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, said the two countries nearly agreed to a land-for-peace swap six years.

But the demands placed on Syria might scotch any deal. The group called on Syria to give up its efforts to influence politics in Lebanon and to cooperate with a U.N. investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a probe that could end up implicating top Syrian figures. Such a price might be too high even for the Golan Heights.

The biggest focus is on Iran, which the commission paints as a shrewd, meddlesome neighbor that continues to provide arms and training for Shiite militias as well as explosives know-how to Sunni forces targeting U.S. troops.

"Of all the neighbors, Iran has the most leverage in Iraq," the report said, noting the Iranian government's longtime ties to Iraqi Shiite political factions.

The report calls for Iraqi national reconciliation. But it offers no real suggestion on how to make that happen in a country in which government leaders accuse one another of fueling sectarian violence to further their political goals. Sunni politicians call their Shiite counterparts leaders of militias and death squads. Shiites charge that their fellow Sunni parliament members lead insurgent groups.

The group also recommends that the U.S. add more advisers, including Department of Justice officials for Iraq's frail judicial system. But the U.S. already has advisers throughout the government. Indeed, scores of coalition soldiers fill the halls of the Interior Ministry on any given day.

Those working alongside the Iraqi army and police force complain that they can pressure their Iraqi counterparts only so far because the Iraqis are under no obligation to take their suggestions. Because Iraq is a sovereign government, it can reject any suggestions put forth—and often does, they say.

The report identifies Shiite militias as "a substantial threat," and zeroes in on the two best-known: the Mahdi Army of militant cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and the Badr Organization of the more moderate Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim. But it didn't address the splinter groups and rogue cells that are thought to be behind much of Iraq's sectarian mayhem.

The report also gives credence to longtime Sunni complaints that militias are taking over the security forces, receiving money and weapons from Iran, and targeting Sunni Arab civilians.

The commissioners' recommendations on curbing the militias, however, ranged from the ill-advised to the improbable.

They suggest direct talks between U.S. officials and al-Sadr, the fiercely anti-American cleric who's led two armed uprisings against American forces. They also advise attempting direct contact with the reclusive and probably infirm Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's highest-ranking Shiite cleric, or at least the appointment of a "high-level American Shia Muslim to serve as an emissary to him."

But both clerics have shunned direct interaction with U.S. officials since the beginning of the war, and they wield enormous political influence in Iraq. Neither al-Sadr nor al-Sistani stands to gain much from changing that stance now: al-Sadr's militant movement derives its power from Shiite disenchantment with American forces, and al-Sistani's already diminished sway over moderate Shiites could slip even more if he's perceived as bowing to U.S. pressure to meet.

On page 59 of the report, the group recommends that the "United States should work closely with Iraq's leaders to support the achievement of specific objectives—or milestones—on national reconciliation, security and governance."

Many of those milestones are in place, in the political process and in the transfer of authority to the Iraqi military. The most visible deadlines have been Iraq's three elections: two for the government and one on the referendum on the constitution. Iraqi leaders credit American Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad for keeping them on track and holding them to U.S.-set deadlines.

But none of that has improved the security situation or strengthened the Iraqi government. The leadership is more fractious than ever.

Moreover, U.S. officials have laid out deadlines for handing over control of the Iraqi army to the Ministry of Defense. Although they meet the deadlines, little changes. U.S. forces still must stop widespread violence and train their Iraqi counterparts.

Some of the recommendations run counter to the realities of Iraq's delicate political alliances, and several assume that the United States has more influence to force change than it does.

For example, the study group recommends that "the United States encourage the return of qualified Iraqi professionals—Sunni or Shia, nationalist or ex-Baathist, Kurd or Turkmen or Christian or Arab—into the government."

For that to happen, however, the prime minister, a Shiite hardliner, would have to embrace former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party in his government. But Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa Party, of which he's a founding member, staunchly opposes reaching out to Baathists, even those who've renounced their pasts.

And while everyone agrees that Iraq must improve its infrastructure, with American help, the country's violence makes it nearly impossible for contractors, engineers, electricians and the like to work safely, particularly foreign-born workers.

As U.S. officials here began perusing the report, which was released early evening local time, some asked themselves what would happen if the recommendations didn't work.

"What are we supposed to do then?" pondered one high-ranking military commander in Baghdad, who spoke only on condition of anonymity because he isn't authorized to comment publicly. "The report doesn't say anything about that."

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(Youssef is the chief of McClatchy's Baghdad Bureau. Allam, a former McClatchy Baghdad bureau chief, is the chief of McClatchy's Cairo Bureau. Both have covered Iraq since 2003. Israel Bureau Chief Dion Nissenbaum contributed from Washington.)

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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