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Leaders greet Iraq report with skepticism

WASHINGTON—The bipartisan Iraq Study Group's proposals for an urgent course change in Iraq were met with skepticism on Thursday from President Bush, some U.S. senators, Iraqi leaders and Israel's government.

Such widespread reservations raised doubt that the group's approach will become a blueprint for U.S. policy.

While welcoming the group's effort, Bush appeared to reject anew its call for diplomatic outreach to Iran and Syria. He said he's awaiting his own review of Iraq strategy, which is being conducted at the White House, Pentagon and State Department, before ordering any policy changes.

The president announced that he's planning to give a major speech outlining a new strategy for Iraq once the administration's reviews are complete.

Asked whether he's capable of changing course in Iraq, Bush replied: "I think you're going to have to pay attention to my speech coming up here when I get all the recommendations in, and you can answer that question yourself."

Bush's top national security aides have been meeting intensively recently and hope to complete the policy scrub by year's end, according to a senior State Department official. The official requested anonymity to describe internal government deliberations.

Bush made clear that he plans to pick and choose among the group's 79 recommendations.

"Congress isn't going to accept every recommendation in the report and neither will the administration," he said at a White House press conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Yet only hours earlier, study group co-chairmen James A. Baker III and Lee Hamilton told a Senate committee that the plan they released Wednesday must be implemented as a package—and urgently.

Asked when the U.S. position in Iraq would become "hopeless," Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana, replied: "We're perilously close to that point."

The 10-member group called for creating a major U.S. diplomatic initiative in the Middle East, including reviving an effort to broker Arab-Israeli peace; transforming the U.S. military mission in Iraq from combat to primarily training Iraqi forces, so that most U.S. combat brigades could be removed by early 2008; and conditioning American support on the Iraqi government's ability to meet milestones of progress on political reconciliation and security.

In Israel, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert rejected the group's suggestion that peace in Iraq requires a Palestinian state. And in Baghdad, aides to firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, a Shiite power, said he'd refuse to negotiate with Americans, as the group recommended.

To be sure, some Senate Democrats welcomed the bipartisan report, which effectively rejected the Bush administration's approach to Iraq and the Middle East.

Wednesday "was surely an extraordinary day in the history of the Iraq war, a day ... which signaled the end of the administration's `stay the course' policy and the beginning of the development of a new, realistic, bipartisan and hopefully successful approach," said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., who'll take over the Senate Armed Services Committee in January.

But several Democrats and Republicans on that committee questioned the group's proposal of talks with Iran, noting that Tehran is fueling Shiite militias in Iraq and is suspected of developing nuclear weapons.

Some also expressed concern that increasing the number of American advisers to the Iraqi army while pulling out most U.S. combat forces could put the advisers at unacceptable risk.

While the report has received widespread praise for its blunt assessment of the deteriorating situation in Iraq, skepticism about its recommendations wasn't limited to Washington.

Israel rejected the group's suggestion of a "renewed and sustained commitment" by the United States to broker peace between Israel and the Arabs. The report argues that U.S. goals in the region won't be met until Washington deals with that conflict.

"The attempt to create a linkage between the Iraqi issue and the Mideast issue—we have a different view," Israeli Prime Minister Olmert said Thursday. "To the best of my knowledge, President Bush, throughout the recent years, also had a different view on this."

Olmert also rejected opening peace talks with Syria, as the group recommends.

Israeli newspapers have quoted Olmert aides in recent weeks saying that Bush has assured the Israeli leader there'll be no fundamental change in U.S. Middle East policy.

At their press conference, Bush and Blair reiterated their desire for Middle East peace and a two-state solution that involves a Palestinian state at peace with Israel. But Bush gave no hint that he would change his approach or undertake the type of aggressive U.S. mediation mission that the study group envisions.

In Baghdad, aides to Sadr said he would refuse to meet with U.S. officials. The Iraq Study Group recommended U.S. outreach to Sadr and other powerful Shiite Muslim leaders outside government. Sadr leads the Mahdi Army, Iraq's dominant Shiite militia, which some charge runs death squads and is ethnically cleansing Baghdad neighborhoods.

Sayed Riyadh al-Nouri, a top Sadr adviser based in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, said the Iraq Study Group is more important in the United States than in Iraq.

"I don't think his eminence will approve or negotiate with the occupying forces," Nouri said, referring to Sadr. "The Iraqi government is not obligated to abide by the recommendations. But they are obligatory for Bush. He has lost a lot for his policy, and following these recommendations may give him better standing."

The study group's 142-page report provoked little reaction in Iraq. Neither Iraqi television pundits nor popular bloggers were dissecting its details. Politicians and citizens said they had little hope that it would stop the rise in sectarian attacks. They concluded that it was a well-written, thinly veiled strategy for a U.S. exit from Iraq.

While Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have rejected one-on-one U.S. talks with Iran and Syria without preconditions, they haven't ruled out expanding an existing international group, called the Compact for Iraq, to include the two countries. Nations involved in the Compact are expected to meet in January or February.

On Capitol Hill, Baker and Hamilton—who acknowledged that Iran likely wouldn't pick up an offer of talks from Washington—ran into stiff resistance to that proposal.

"Others have described this commission as composed of `realists,'" Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., told the two. "I'm skeptical that it's realistic to think that Iran wants to help the United States succeed in Iraq. They are, after all, supporting Hezbollah, which gathers people in the square in Beirut to shout, `Death to America.' They are giving sophisticated (explosives) to the militias, which are killing Americans every day" in Iraq.


(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.


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