WASHINGTON – Former Secretary of State James A. Baker III (search), an architect of the U.S. war with Iraq in 1991, is advising the Bush administration to consider a phased withdrawal of some of the 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq (search).
Otherwise, Baker says, the United States risks being suspected of having an "imperial design" in the region.
A protracted U.S. military presence in Iraq is probably unavoidable since attacks on U.S.-led coalition forces and on Iraqi security forces are likely to continue, Baker said Tuesday in a speech at Rice University (search) in Houston.
"Even under the best of circumstances, the new Iraqi government will remain extremely vulnerable to internal divisions and external meddling," he said.
Still, former President George H.W. Bush's secretary of state said, "any appearance of a permanent occupation will both undermine domestic support here in the United States and play directly into the hands of those in the Middle East who — however wrongly — suspect us of imperial design."
At the same time, Baker urged the Bush administration to call for a "good-faith effort" by the new Palestinian leadership to crack down on terror groups that target Israel and also "prevail upon Israel" to stop settlement activity in Palestinian areas during any peace talks.
"We should serve, when necessary, as a direct participant in the talks, offering suggestions, brokering compromises and extending assurances," Baker said.
Above all, he said, the administration should make it "unambiguously clear" to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that his projected withdrawal from Gaza should not be part of a design to limit the Palestinians to enclaves.
Seeking peace in the Middle East improves chances of achieving stability in Iraq, said Baker, who helped plan the Persian Gulf war that forced Iraq to reverse its annexation of Kuwait.
"The road to peace doesn't run just through Jerusalem or just through Baghdad," he said. "That is a false choice. Today, it arguably runs through both."