Iraq Study Group Report: ‘Grave and Deteriorating’

Less than one month after US voters delivered a thumping repudiation of the Bush administration’s Iraq policy, and days after incoming Secretary of Defense Robert Gates declared that the US is “not winning” the war in Iraq, the bipartisan Iraq Study Group today delivered the most damning assessment yet of the US policy in Iraq.

The ISG’s much-anticipated report begins ominously, “The situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating.”

The group has recommended that the US start winding down its military operations in Iraq to focus on training Iraqi security forces over the next year. This would allow most of the 140,000 US troops to leave Iraq during the first quarter of 2008.

The Iraqi government would meanwhile need to meet a series of performance targets or face penalties in the form of reduced military and economic aid.

The ISG report, entitled The Way Forward: A New Approach, also calls on the Bush administration to develop a comprehensive Middle East peace plan to stabilize the region. This would involve a “New Diplomatic Offensive” to establish diplomatic relations between the US and Iraq’s neighbors, Iran and Syria, who will have long-term influence on Iraq’s stability. The broader diplomatic strategy in the Middle East would also include Lebanon, Israel and Palestinian leaders who recognize Israel’s right to exist.

The report emphasizes the imperative of transferring control to the Maliki government and Iraqi security forces as a matter of priority: “The most important questions about Iraq’s future are now the responsibility of Iraqis. The United States must adjust its role to encourage the Iraqi people to take control. The primary mission of US forces should evolve to one of supporting the Iraqi army.”

Although handing over control to the Maliki government has obviously long been the goal of the Bush administration, President Bush has repeatedly refused to set timelines for the withdrawal of US troops. Yet the ISG report strongly recommends giving the Iraqi government one year to establish control before the US starts to withdraw its troops, regardless of the progress made by the Maliki government.

Another recommendation is that US military and economic aid to Iraq be tied to performance targets, to ensure that the Maliki government makes rapid progress in the key areas of national reconciliation, security and governance. In the past, Mr Bush has repeatedly rejected calls to punish the Maliki government for not making progress in these areas.

The ISG also seems to clash with President Bush across the board in the Middle East. Despite the ISG’s diplomatic recommendations, Mr Bush will probably continue to refuse to meet with the leaders of Iran and Syria, because he believes they have fuelled the insurgency in Iraq and have maintained ties to terrorist organizations.

Mr Bush also rejects any links between the violence in Iraq and other conflicts in the Middle East. Yet the ISG report argues, “The United States cannot achieve its goals in the Middle East unless it deals with the Israeli-Arab conflict and regional instability … The situation in Iraq is linked with events in the region. US efforts in Afghanistan have been complicated by the overriding focus of US attention and resources on Iraq. Several Iraqi, US and international officials commented to us that Iraqi opposition to the United States—and support for Sadr— spiked in the aftermath of Israel’s bombing campaign in Lebanon. The actions of Syria and Iran in Iraq are often tied to their broader concerns with the United States. Many Sunni Arab states are concerned about rising Iranian influence in Iraq and the region. Most of the region’s countries are wary of US efforts to promote democracy in Iraq and the Middle East.”

Given that the report effectively calls for the reversal of several Bush administration policies, it is widely believed that President Bush will dismiss the report and its recommendations, despite his public assurances that he will take the report “very seriously”. In fact, the White House has confirmed that the Bush administration is already conducting its own study, and the President will decide in the coming weeks whether he’ll change his strategy in Iraq.

Mr Bush recently stated in Amman, “It’s in our interests to help liberty prevail in the Middle East, starting with Iraq. And that’s why this business about graceful exit simply has no realism to it at all. We’ll be in Iraq until the job is complete.”

While President Bush seems prepared to press on with his current course and its military solutions, the ISG insists that the “grave and deteriorating” crisis in Iraq requires a sharp change of course: “Our most important recommendations call for new and enhanced diplomatic and political efforts in Iraq and the region, and a change in the primary mission of US forces in Iraq that will enable the United States to begin to move its combat forces out of Iraq responsibly”.

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