A bruising battle ahead over Iraq

IRAQ STUDY GROUP REPORT

Democrats want drastic change in US policy but govt dashes hopes of a U-turn.

AFTER a damning indictment of his Iraq policy by a bipartisan panel, President George W. Bush pleaded for a political truce as his Democrat opponents signalled a bruising battle ahead.

The Democrats have openly backed the recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton commission but the White House sought to quell expectations of any dramatic change in the immediate future.

A rattled Mr Bush, who met members of the Iraq Study Group just before their proposals were made public, said: “This report gives a very tough assessment of the situation in Iraq. We will take every proposal seriously and we will act in a timely fashion.”

The wheels of bureaucracy in Washington have begun to turn – albeit slowly – following the release of the much-anticipated report that declared that the situation in Iraq was “grave and deteriorating” as a result of policies that were “not working”.

It offered 79 non-binding proposals to prevent Iraq from sliding further into chaos. Although there is no explicit timetable,it called for a short term increase in American forces with a gradual drawdown of troops in combat by early 2008.

The bulk of the 148-page report, however, recommended that the United States devise a far more aggressive diplomatic initiative in the region, something the Bush administration has been reluctant to try so far.

It recommended direct talks with Iran and Syria, and renewed commitment to dealing with the Israel-Palestine issue.

But expectations of a swift change in US policy on Iraq were dashed almost immediately by the White House.

When a reporter asked whether the President was capable of making dramatic changes in his war plan, White House spokesman Tony Snow replied: “Well, you’re assuming that the President has to pull U-turns. I’m not sure I agree.” On Iran, the message was emphatic.

Mr Snow said that there would be no bilateral talks with Teheran unless it freezes sensitive nuclear work, but left the door open to possible multilateral talks in the context of Iraq.

Officials said that Mr Bush would await the results of Iraq policy reviews by the Defence Department, the State Department and the National Security Council.

Mr Bush had commissioned these separate reports by departments within his administration to allow him to take in more input as he fashions a new policy for Iraq.

Having more options put on the table would give him a bit more room to manoeuvre politically as he prepares a response, which is expected in weeks, and not months, as promised.

“However credible the recommendations of the commission, there is still scepticism in this administration towards it,” an administration insider revealed.

“They will look at it carefully but the approach will be one of cherry-picking. Embracing all of it will be an admission that its policy towards Iraq was a total failure, something that Bush is still not prepared to accept.”

Several experts have supported the findings and recommendations of the 10-member panel.

Dr Richard Haas of the Council on Foreign Relations noted: “It is sober about the situation in Iraq; it is sober about the trends; it is sober about what the United States can do about Iraq.

“But also the report is something else: it is refreshingly honest. You can’t help but feel that it is written, as we used to say, with the bark off the tree.”

With the release of the report, the biggest challenge for Mr Bush will come not from Baghdad but from his own political backyard. Buoyed by their victory in the mid-term elections where they swept both chambers of Congress, Democrats have signalled the prospect of a divided government.

Several Democrats, who supported the recommendations of the panel, maintained that they were willing to work with the President. But they warned him that if his policies on Iraq did not change, he would be in for a major confrontation. Influential senator Dianne Feinstein said the report gave Mr Bush a new chance in Iraq.

“It represents a lifeline for his administration,” she said. “This is the first time I’ve seen an opportunity for a new path in Iraq…I hope the President seizes this opportunity.”

Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the key recommendations of the blue-ribbon, bipartisan panel mirrored many of the ideas that she and other Democratic leaders had included in three letters sent during the past year to Mr Bush. Until now, they have not received a response from him.

“Staying the course has been rejected by the American people,” she said. “They made it clear in the election and it is time to show we heard them.”

Ms Pelosi was hardly optimistic about the timeline for change too, judging by her remarks on Wednesday.

She said that the Bush administration should brace itself to answer many questions on Iraq in the months to come, while revealing that Congress might impose conditions early next year when Mr Bush sends a special Iraq war spending request of more than US$100 billion (S$155 billion).

Clearly, Mr Bush must brace himself for a bruising time, both at home and abroad.

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