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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Strategy Report Suggests Talking to Iran and Syria

WASHINGTON -- A draft report on strategies for Iraq, to be debated in Washington by a bipartisan commission beginning Monday, urges an aggressive regional diplomatic initiative that includes direct talks with Iran and Syria but sets no timetables for a military withdrawal, officials who had seen all or parts of the document said.

While the diplomatic strategy appears likely to be accepted, with some amendments, by the 10-member Iraq Study Group, members of the commission and outsiders involved in its work said they expected a potentially divisive debate about timetables for beginning a U.S. withdrawal.

In interviews, several officials said announcing a major withdrawal was the only way to persuade the government of Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, to focus on creating an effective Iraqi military force.

Several commission members, including some Democrats, are discussing proposals that call for a declaration that within a specified period of time, perhaps as short as one year, a significant number of U.S. troops should be withdrawn, regardless of whether the Iraqi government's forces are declared ready to defend the country.

Among the ideas are embedding far more U.S. training teams into Iraqi military units in a last-ditch improvement effort. While numbers are still approximate, phased withdrawal of combat troops over the next year would leave 70,000 to 80,000 U.S. troops in the country, compared to about 150,000 now.

The draft report seems to link U.S. withdrawal to the performance of the Iraqi military, as President George W. Bush has done. But details of the performance benchmarks could not be obtained, and it is this section of the report that is most likely to be revised.

While the commission is scheduled to meet for two days this week, officials say the session may be extended if members have trouble reaching consensus.

Meanwhile, Bush will be visiting Latvia and Estonia, then will head to Jordan on Wednesday for two days of meetings with Maliki and King Abdullah II of Jordan.

The recommendations of the commission, an independent advisory group created at the suggestion of several members of the U.S. Congress, are expected to carry unusual weight because its members, drawn from both political parties, have deep experience in foreign policy. They include its co-chairmen, former Secretary of State James Baker, a Republican, and Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman.

Bush has said he plans to make no decisions on troop increases or decreases "until I hear from a variety of sources, including our own ... military."

But privately, administration officials seem deeply concerned about the weight of the findings of the Baker-Hamilton commission. "I think there is fear that anything they say will seem like they are etched in stone tablets," a senior U.S. diplomat said. "It's going to be hard for the president to argue that a group this distinguished, and this bipartisan, has got it wrong."