Anticipation builds ahead of next month’s release of the Iraq Study Group's report on Iraq. Washington is abuzz with anonymously sourced reports about its contents. Proposed solutions (CSMonitor) reportedly range from convening a regional roundtable of Iraq’s neighbors to enacting a phased redeployment of U.S. forces to stepping up the training of Iraqi security forces. Whatever its recommendations, experts expect a major shift in U.S. policy on Iraq in the coming year. President Bush, briefed by members of the bipartisan commission, informed reporters he looked forward to “their interesting ideas,” but added that “the best military options depend upon the conditions on the ground,” which suggests he would not make major troop redeployments without the Pentagon’s assent.
Already, the commission, which is cochaired by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-IND.), has revealed cleavages between the U.S. approach to conflict resolution and that of American allies like Britain. To fix Iraq, Prime Minister Tony Blair recently came out in favor of “a new partnership” (Reuters) with neighboring states like Iran and Syria, which are seen by the White House as part of the problem, not the solution. Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria agrees. “Even if Iran and Syria actually agreed to help stabilize Iraq,” he writes, “there's no certainty that their efforts would bring dramatic changes to the country.”
The Baker report also has met some resistance from members of Congress, most notably Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who continues to clamor for bumping up the number of boots on the ground in Iraq. Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), in line to become the new chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, says the onus should be on the Iraqi leadership to forge a political compromise because the war cannot be won on the battlefield. “We have got to press the Iraqi leaders to reach a political settlement and the only way to do that is to let them know the open-ended commitment of U.S. troops is over,” he told NPR. The idea of turning to a group of unelected experts has also come under criticism from pundits. “The chance that this group of ageing Brahmins will come up with something original is not enormous,” says Michael Kinsley of Slate.
Among the expected recommendations by the Baker panel is a regional conference, modeled after the 1995 Dayton roundtable that proved successful in resolving the Bosnian crisis. Former Ambassador to the UN Richard Holbrooke, the chief architect of the Dayton peace process, tells CFR.org he favors a regional conference but cautions that “none of the major factors that occurred in Bosnia would apply here.”
Experts agree any solution—whether diplomatic, political, or military—will have to redress the worries of Iraq’s minority Sunnis, whose support of a raging insurgency threatens to unravel any efforts at national reconciliation. This new Backgrounder explains the evolving composition of the insurgency, its relationship with Iraq’s Sunni populace, and its views of the U.S. military presence in Iraq.