Iraq Study Group: Mixed Reviews

The response to the Iraq Study Group’s bipartisan report has been anything but unified, having touched off a firestorm of debate throughout the US and the world.

The ISG warned that the crisis in Iraq is “grave and deteriorating” and said the US should scale back its military mission to pursue a political solution. This means reassigning US combat troops to train Iraqi soldiers, redeploying most US troops by early 2008, forcing the Maliki government to accelerate national reconciliation and diplomatically engaging Iran and Syria within a broader Middle East peace plan.

The two heads of state who bear primary responsibility for the Iraq war have responded rather differently to the ISG report, which presents a powerful indictment of the failed US-led policy in Iraq.

President Bush, still smarting from the stinging repudiation delivered by US voters on November 7, gave the report a somber nod and noted that it was “worthy of serious study”. Yet behind the scenes, he had already defiantly ordered that the Pentagon, the State Department and the National Security Council develop alternative proposals. Mr Bush refuses outright to consider timelines for US troop withdrawal from Iraq and he remains viscerally opposed to dialogue with Iran and Syria.

Meanwhile, a beleaguered Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is suffering a punishing backlash over the Iraq war from the British public, praised the report for “offering a strong way forward”. Prior to the report, Mr Blair had already called for dialogue with Iran and Syria to help stabilize Iraq and the region. It’s also been recently announced that British troops may wrap up their operations in southern Iraq by mid-2007.

The ISG report has received a mixed reaction from Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) insists that more troops should be sent to Iraq: “I believe that this [report] is a recipe that will lead to, sooner or later, our defeat in Iraq.” Yet Rep. John Murtha (D-Penn.) believes the timeline for bringing the troops home needs to be shorter.  Most Democrats and moderate Republicans fall somewhere in between these two poles of opinion.

By far the most explosive reactions to the ISG report have come from the conservative media in the US, which has been shredding the report and baying for more troops. The New York Post branded the ISG “The Counsel of Cowards” and the group’s co-chairs, former Secretary of State Jim Baker and former Congressman Lee Hamilton, “surrender monkeys”. The Wall Street Journal dismissed the report as a “strategic muddle,” Richard Perle shrugged it off as “absurd,” and Rush Limbaugh labeled it “stupid.”

At the ISG’s press conference on Wednesday, Mr Hamilton declared, “The current approach is not working, and the ability of the United States to influence events is diminishing.” He later told CNN’s Late Edition, “We still think we can achieve the President´s goal of an Iraq that can defend itself, support itself and sustain itself, govern itself … We don´t want a precipitous withdrawal.” He also told Fox News Sunday, “We want to conclude this war, and we want to conclude it in a responsible way.” Mr Hamilton and Mr Baker have said the ISG represents the kind of bipartisan cooperation the US needs right now.

Iraqi National Reconciliation

Prior to the official release of the ISG report in Washington, the two co-chairs addressed Iraqi government leaders via video link on a big screen in an office in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone. Mr Baker spoke directly to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and summarized the recommendations.

The New York Times reported that Mr Maliki initially seemed pleased and said, “If the report is written in that way, it’s good”. However, he added that he would reserve his judgment until he is able to read the details of the report. The responses of Iraqi politicians have predictably been split along sectarian lines. The Shiites and the Kurds, the main authors of the Iraqi constitution, are opposed to the constitutional review recommended in the report, which aims to facilitate national reconciliation with the minority Sunnis. Meanwhile, Sunnis are sorely disappointed that the report did not explicitly propose a purge of Shiite militias from the ranks of the Iraqi security forces; Sunnis fear these militias will resume committing atrocities when US troops leave. Dhafir al-Ani, a conservative Sunni Arab Member of Parliament said, “These recommendations might be a solution for the American crisis in Iraq, but not a solution for the Iraqi crisis.” Kurdish leaders, who are demanding regional autonomy, are said to be livid that the report recommends giving the central government control over oil revenues while blocking an opportunity for the oil-rich city of Kirkuk to vote on joining Iraqi Kurdistan.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, an ethnic Kurd, slammed the report as “dangerous” and “an insult to Iraqis”, because “the report has a mentality that we are a colony where they impose their conditions and neglect our independence.” On Late Edition, Mr Hamilton defended the proposal to make economic and military aid conditional on achieving measurable progress: “Up until this point, we´ve given a blank check to the Iraqis. And I´m not surprised that the president would like that sort of a deal.”

Dr Lawrence Korb, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and senior advisor to the Center for Defense Information, said timelines and benchmarks are critical to success in Iraq. He told Australia’s Lateline program: “I think the key is that when you set a specific timeline to get out, a specific withdrawal date, that sends a signal to the Iraqi Government that they have to start the reconciliation process. They promised that four months after the election they would modify the constitution to ensure that the Sunnis got their fair share of the resources of the country. Until they do that, it doesn´t matter how many troops you have. You could have a soldier or a Marine on every street corner in Baghdad and it´s not going to dampen down the violence if they haven´t decided the questions of the sharing of the oil revenues, the balance between the provincial and central government and the protection of minority rights. That´s the key. You´ve got to be able to get them to do what they should have been doing for the past year. The civil war is happening because the Iraqis have not done what they´re supposed to do.”

Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, leader of Iraq’s Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), denied that the Iraqi government needs to be prodded to take up the challenge of national reconciliation. He told Late Edition, “The reconciliation did not come because of the pressure of the United States or any other forces, outsiders, but it was just coming from the Iraqi government itself.” When asked whether SCIRI is aligned with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Mr Hakim simply responded that his party has “a strong relationship with Iran”. Mr Hakim then refused to state whether he supports Israel’s right to exist, despite being asked several times by CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer.

New Diplomatic Offensive in the Middle East

A key set of recommendations in the ISG report proposes the development of a New Diplomatic Offensive to bring peace to the Middle East. On NBC’s Meet the Press, Mr Hamilton explained, “We need to build a consensus in the region with Iraq’s neighbors. Iran and Syria are major players. Now, to try to isolate them, to shove them aside, I don’t think gets you anywhere. How do you solve problems with people unless you talk to them?”

Rep. Chris Shays (R-Conn.) threw his support behind this diplomatic strategy and told Late Edition, “To get to the ultimate result you have to go into areas you don´t want to get to that final result. To not have dialogue with either country I think is a mistake.” Incoming Chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) also supports the New Diplomatic Offensive and told CBS’s Face the Nation that the US needs to try to involve Iran and Syria, but he’s skeptical that they will cooperate.

UN special envoy on Syria-Lebanon issues, Terje Roed-Larsensaid, is also pessimistic about the prospect of the US getting help from Iraq’s neighbors. He told the Chatham House think tank that the ISG report falsely assumes that there is a common interest among states in the Middle East to stop Iraq’s slide into chaos. He believes that some of Iraq’s neighbors have an interest in maintaining instability in Iraq because they know it will backfire on Washington. He did however agree that if progress were made on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it might well help to defuse other flashpoints in the region.

Training Iraqi Security Forces

One of the final glaring challenges involved for the US will be training the Iraqi security forces, which are rife with sectarianism and militias. Mr Hamilton conceded on Meet the Press, “Not enough of these Iraqi troops are national troops. They’re still sectarian troops.” Sensitive to Sunni Arab fears about Shiite militias serving in the police and security forces, the ISG recommended that control of the elite police units (rumored to be dominated by Shiite militiamen) be transferred from the Shiite-led Interior Ministry to the Sunni-led Defense Ministry. Shiite leaders are expected to strenuously resist any such move.

Christopher Preble, director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, told the San Francisco Chronicle, “It´s not so much that Iraqis are not capable of being trained. It´s a question about loyalties: To what extent can the Iraqis be loyal to the central government?” There have been numerous reports of security forces fleeing from battles, being infiltrated by sectarian militias, actively cooperating with death squads and even running their own death squads. Most current divisions are sect- or tribe-based.

Dr Korb said that US troops assigned to train Iraqi security forces will probably find that the greatest challenge is the pervasive lack of motivation: “It´s not really a question of training. It´s a question of motivation. You change the motivation by creating an Iraqi nation that people want to fight and die for.”

With the complex and critical goal of nation-building carefully laid out in 79 interdependent recommendations, it’s little wonder that Mr Baker warned the Senate that the ISG’s report must be considered as a whole and not as “a fruit salad where one can say, ‘I like this but I don´t like that’.”

It remains to be seen whether President Bush will work with the US Congress to set a truly bipartisan example and firmly set Iraq on a new course that leads to a future of peace and prosperity.

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