WASHINGTON – A leader of a bipartisan commission on U.S. options in Iraq said the group has agreed on a set of recommendations due next week, and published reports said the panel will urge a major withdrawal of U.S. forces but set no firm deadlines.
Such a withdrawal would gradually shift the U.S. military role from combat to support, a shift in policy for the Bush administration that President Bush seemed to reject Thursday, days ahead of the report's release.
"This business about a graceful exit just simply has no realism to it at all," he said Thursday at a news conference in Jordan with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki by his side.
The New York Times and The Washington Post reported Thursday that the much-anticipated report from the congressionally chartered Iraq Study Group will recommend far more aggressive diplomacy to enlist other nations in helping to curb violence in Iraq. That outreach could include a regional conference among all of Iraq's neighbors, or a wider gathering of Middle East nations that would also address separate Middle East peace issues.
The Times reported that the study group will recommend direct, high-level American diplomacy with U.S. adversaries Iran and Syria, a path that the administration has also rejected so far.
The group's reported agreement on a general strategy for a gradual pullback of the 15 American brigades now in Iraq represents a compromise among Republican and Democratic members who went into final deliberations this week with differing views on the value of timelines and deadlines for U.S. military engagement. The result, the newspapers reported, is a recommendation that the United States make clear that its troop commitment is not open-ended, while leaving the timeframe for withdrawal vague.
The study group's members — five Democrats and five Republicans — were split over the appropriate U.S. troop levels in Iraq, and whether and how to pull American forces out, according to one official close to the panel's deliberations.
A second official has said the commission was unlikely to propose a timetable for withdrawing all U.S. troops, but that some members seem to favor setting a date for an initial withdrawal. That is an idea favored by many congressional Democrats. The commission's recommendations are nonbinding.
The reported compromise strategy would allow the U.S. government to put al-Maliki's fragile governing coalition on notice that it must settle its own differences, tamp down sectarian violence and prepare to assume growing responsibility for the country's security. It could also give the Republican Bush administration political cover to step back from red lines it has set in the Iraq conflict, such as Bush's statement this week that he will never "pull the troops off the battlefield before the mission is complete."
Bush offered a slightly toned-down statement of resolve at Thursday's press conference with al-Maliki. The chaotic summit with al-Maliki was hastily arranged by the White House last week, as tit-for-tat violence in Iraq reached new levels. It took place against the backdrop both of the coming recommendations for a shift in U.S. policy and a leaked memo outlining U.S. doubts about al-Maliki's job performance.
Without any specific reference to the commission, Bush acknowledged a general pressure for U.S. troop withdrawals but said, "We'll be in Iraq until the job is complete, at the request of a sovereign government elected by the people."
Meanwhile, former President Clinton said violence in Iraq now fits "the normal definition of a civil war." He spoke in an interview on CNN to be broadcast Friday. The Bush administration has refused to label the Iraq conflict a civil war, in part out of worry that the definition would further erode support for the war in the United States.
The Bush administration is also conducting its own crisis evaluation of Iraq, which could provide a different kind of political cover. With at least two sets of recommendations before him, Bush could pick some from the commission chaired by Republican former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., and some from his own advisers.
Hamilton said Wednesday the group has reached a consensus and would announce its proposals next week.
Speaking at a forum on national security at the Center for American Progress, a liberal group, Hamilton declined to disclose any specifics about the group's decisions.
"This afternoon, we reached a consensus ... and we will announce that on Dec. 6," Hamilton said. "We're making recommendations."
The Times, citing unidentified people familiar with the report, said it does not state whether U.S. brigades, numbering 3,000 to 5,000 troops each, should be pulled back to isolated bases in Iraq or to neighboring countries.
Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman the National Security Council traveling with Bush in Jordan, said the White House had not yet been given a briefing about the recommendations and had no comment on the news reports.
Defense officials, meanwhile, said the Pentagon is developing plans to send four more battalions to Iraq early next year. The extra combat engineer units of Army reserves would total about 3,500 troops and would come from around the United States, said officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because the deployments have not been announced.
There are currently about 139,000 U.S. troops in Iraq; some 20,000 are in and around Baghdad, the capital.