WASHINGTON – All U.S. combat brigades not necessary for force protection should be out of Iraq by the first quarter of 2008, the Iraq Study Group suggested Wednesday in its widely anticipated report recommending a path for the United States' exit strategy from Iraq.
The report says the goal for U.S. forces in Iraq should evolve from combat to support for Iraqi security forces by increasing the number of U.S. troops embedded in the Iraqi army five-fold, from 4,000 to 20,000.
The timeline is one previously offered by Gen. George Casey, the commander of the Multinational Forces in Iraq. The Iraqis would then be responsible for taking over primary responsibility for combat operations, according to the plan's vision.
The report released Wednesday says "the situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating" and no path can guarantee success. It adds that the ability of the United States to influence events is diminishing and violence is increasing "in scope and lethality."
"Our ship of state has hit rough waters. It must now chart a new way forward," said former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana, a co-chairman of the ISG. "No course of action in Iraq is guaranteed to stop a slide toward chaos."
"There is no magic formula that will solve the problems of Iraq," and U.S. policy should focus on a wider area than just Iraq, said former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, the other co-chairman.
"We do not recommend a stay-the-course solution. In our opinion, that approach is no longer viable," Baker said.
The report offered 79 recommendations, including three critical suggestions — changing the primary mission of U.S. forces in Iraq, prompt action by the Iraqi government to hit milestones on reconciliation and new and enhanced political and diplomatic efforts in Iraq and the region.
It specifically states making sure the United States not commit U.S. forces for an open-ended commitment. It calls for a push for a U.S.-Arab peace, including direct talks between Syria and Israel. It calls for engaging Iran and Syria "constructively" to resolve the Iraq crisis.
The U.S. diplomatic effort should include engaging all of Iraq's neighbors as well as the United Nations Secretary-General, its Security Council's five permanent members and the European Union.
The commission recommends the United States reduce "political, military or economic support" for Iraq if the government in Baghdad cannot make substantial progress toward providing for its own security.
But commissioners said they agree that the goal of U.S. policy in Iraq is the one set forth by President Bush: an Iraq that can govern, sustain and defend itself. One way to move that objective forward is to get U.S. support lined up behind a plan to reach that goal, they said.
"We have made a terrible commitment in Iraq in terms of our blood and our treasure, and I think we owe it to them to try to take one last chance at making Iraq work, and more importantly, to take one last chance at unifying this country on this war," said commission member Leon Panetta, chief of staff to former President Clinton.
Three and a half years after major combat ended in Iraq, nearly 2,900 U.S. service men and women have been killed and a relentless insurgency has complicated a political solution and caused the deaths of thousands of Iraqis in sectarian violence. About 140,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq with no date in sight for their departure.
The chairman said the report specifically makes recommendations on what not to do in Iraq. The group said U.S. forces should not pull out precipitously, since that could cause a "blood bath." But Baker said adding more than 100,000 U.S. troops will also not help. The ISG also does not recommend dividing up the country into three autonomous regions split according to religious and ethnic sects.
The recommendations cover a range of areas outside of the military, political or diplomatic scopes, including criminal justice, oil, reconstruction, the U.S. budget process, training of U.S. government personnel and United States intelligence.
Prior to its press conference, the ISG presented its long-awaited report to President Bush received, who pledged to take its recommendations for war policy in Iraq "very seriously," though "we probably won't agree with every proposal."
"I will take it very seriously and we will act on it in a timely fashion," Bush told reporters at the White House after meeting with the group for about an hour.
"This report gives a very tough assessment of the situation in Iraq. It is a report that brings some really very interesting proposals," Bush said.
Baker said the report does not have to be swallowed whole.
"This is not legislation and it's not an executive order. It does not bind anyone," he said.
But the group did say that it's incumbent upon the executive and the legislative branches of the U.S. government to make decisions on a strategy with some urgency.
The president has resisted engagement with Iran and Syria, which the U.S. accuses of being bad actors on the world stage as well as instigators in Iraq.
Bush has rejected any timetable for U.S. troop draw downs. But the White House also insists that the examinations, including an administration review of military options led by Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will be considered.
"We're not the only group in town making recommendations here," Hamilton acknowledged. "We recognize that our report is only one, and there will be many recommendations. But the report will stand on its own and be accepted or rejected on its own."