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Washington Leaders Await Findings of Independent Iraq Study Group

U.S. officials also discuss possibility of dialogue with all of Iraq's neighbors

The 10-member Iraq Study Group is a congressionally mandated commission, co-chaired by former Republican Secretary of State James Baker and former Democratic Representative Lee Hamilton. The group has been studying the situation in Iraq since March, and commission members have interviewed U.S., Iraqi and other foreign officials, as well as religious leaders, business executives, academics and civil society leaders. The group’s report could be completed as early as December.

President Bush and the incoming Democratic leadership in Congress have said they are awaiting the commission’s recommendations. President Bush told White House reporters November 8 that he is “looking forward to hearing the views of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group … [which] is expected to provide recommendations on a way forward.”

Baker and Hamilton have refused to say what recommendations may be forthcoming.

The co-chairs have offered some hints, however, about the direction of the commission.  Hamilton has said a political settlement is needed in Iraq, and Baker has said an immediate U.S. military withdrawal would risk leaving Iraq as a failed state, attracting interference from neighboring nations.

Baker and Hamilton have also expressed a desire to interact with nations such as Syria and Iran with which the United States has had strained relations. Commission members have spoken to officials from both countries.

“I personally believe in talking to your enemies,” Baker said in an October 12 interview with PBS, a U.S. television network. “I agree with that,” Hamilton added. “It’s never been clear to me how you can solve questions without people talking.”

Former CIA director Robert Gates served on the commission until Bush nominated him November 8 to replace Donald Rumsfeld as the next defense secretary.  If confirmed by the Senate, Gates will be positioned to implement the group’s recommendations. (See related article.)

President Bush is also awaiting another report expected to inform the debate on Iraq.  General Peter Pace, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, convened a panel of security experts in September with a mandate that is broader than that of the Iraq Study Group, looking beyond Iraq to the situation in Afghanistan and the War on Terror. The panel has been meeting since September and is expected to deliver its recommendations in December.

Democratic congressional leaders have also called for an international conference on Iraq, bringing together all interested parties, including all neighboring countries, to provide support for Iraq’s political reconciliation process.

At a November 15 hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, David Satterfield, the State Department coordinator for Iraq, praised the assistance Iraq has received from the Arab Gulf states, Egypt and Jordan, particularly in dealing with Iraq’s Sunni Arab population. However, he remained cool to the idea of talks that would include Syria and Iran.  “We believe the Syrian government is well aware of our concerns and the steps required to address those concerns …,” he said. “The problem is not one of dialogue or engagement.”

Satterfield offered a more nuanced response to the idea of talks with Iran, saying the United States is “prepared, in principle, to discuss Iranian activities in Iraq.” But, he added, “the timing of such a direct dialogue is one we still have under review.”

Incoming Democratic Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Joseph Biden has said the United States must push the Iraqi government to move ahead with a hydrocarbons law that will distribute oil revenues evenly among Iraq’s various ethnic and sectarian communities.

Satterfield said, however, that the Iraqis are already nearing agreement on that issue.  “There is large agreement on critical elements of the hydrocarbon law, and the agreement today includes how revenues will be distributed.  Where disagreement … continues," Satterfield told an audience at Washington’s Middle East Institute (MEI) November 13, "is on the issue of: Where will final authority or veto authority rest in terms of contracting decisions?”

Biden has also called for shifting efforts from strengthening Iraq’s central government to strengthening regional governments.  “There is no ability to have a strong central government in Iraq at this moment.  They don't trust one another, there is no history related into it, they have no capacity,” Biden said November 12.  “That's why there has to be some route out through federalism.”

Satterfield told the MEI audience that the Bush administration supports the idea of strengthening local and provincial governments, but not at the expense of the central government, which he insisted plays a key role in establishing national security.

For more information on U.S. policy in Iraq, see Iraq update.

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:


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