Dec 06, 2006

Iraqi Turkmen: Watershed US Report On Iraq Set for Release

The Iraq Study Group is to release proposals for a change of course in Iraq. It is expected to urge President Bush to engage both Iran and Syria in talks over Iraq's plight, to hold a regional conference and to gradually pull out US combat troops.

WASHINGTON (AFP) - A high-level independent US panel is to release proposals for a change of course in Iraq, as Iraq's prime minister called for peace talks among his country's bitterly divided factions.

The Iraq Study Group is expected to urge President George W. Bush on Wednesday, to engage both Iran and Syria in talks over Iraq's plight, to hold a regional conference of Iraq's neighbors, and to gradually pull out US combat troops.

The non-binding report by a bipartisan panel of 10 veteran Washington insiders co-led by former secretary of state James Baker comes more than three-and-a-half years after the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

Tens of thousands of Iraqis have since been killed in bloody sectarian fighting between factions of the Shiite majority and the once-dominant Sunnis.

Fighters from abroad, mostly with Al-Qaeda in Iraq, have also traveled to battle the US-led forces.

The US military death toll in the conflict is beyond the 2,900 mark and US public opinion has turned against the war, with Bush's Republican Party losing control of the US Congress to opposition Democrats largely due to Iraq.

The panel recommends that Washington threaten to withdraw economic and military support for the Iraqi government if Baghdad fails to meet security benchmarks, the Washington Post reported Wednesday.

The report will also call on Washington to seek a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

Many of the panel members have concluded that the Iraq war is essentially lost, the Post reported, citing private correspondence and interviews with participants.

Leaked news of the report in US media suggests there will be no rigid timetable for withdrawing US troops, but implies that their presence is not open-ended.

The report comes one day after the man nominated to be the next US secretary of defense, Robert Gates, told a congressional panel that the United States was losing the war in Iraq.

A senator asked Gates, CIA director from 1991 through January 1993, whether he thought US forces were currently winning. "No, sir," was the terse reply.

Gates, set to replace the embattled Donald Rumsfeld in January, said he worried Iraq could sinking into further chaos.

"My greatest worry, if we mishandle the next year or two, and if we leave Iraq in chaos... a variety of regional powers will become involved in Iraq and we will have a regional conflict on our hands," he said.

Gates was a member of the Iraq Study Group until Bush picked him to succeed Rumsfeld in early November. He told the senators that he was willing to consider new strategies and tactics -- and also suggested that the Iraq Study Group report contains little new.

"It's my impression that, frankly, there are no new ideas on Iraq," he said. "The list of tactics, the list of strategies, the list of approaches, is pretty much out there.

"And the question is: Is there a way to put pieces of those different proposals together in a way that provides a path forward?"

Gates also rejected military action against Iran or Syria except as "an absolute last resort" and urged open channels of communications despite the negative role they have played in Iraq.

Despite the hype it is unclear how open the Bush administration will be to the panel's recommendations.

The president, who has commissioned other government reviews of Iraq policy, has rejected engaging Syria and Iran and insists that US troops will not leave Iraq until their "mission is complete."

The White House sought to play down expectations, stressing that the report is just one set of recommendations for the president as he considers possible course changes in Iraq.

Baker gave Bush a personal preview of the report on Tuesday, and will formally hand the recommendations over at the White House at 1200 GMT.

The Congress-mandated Iraq Study Group was created in March to study the situation in Iraq. It has interviewed Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, foreign diplomats, officials and academics.

In Iraq, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said he is organizing a conference for representatives of political parties and sectarian factions for later in the month.

"We will agree on a charter of honor to end the shedding of Iraqi blood and the sectarian conflict," Maliki told reporters Tuesday.

And Major General William Caldwell, spokesman for the US-led coalition in Iraq, unveiled the details of an "accelerated timetable" for Iraqis to take over security duties in their country, agreed last week by Bush and Maliki .

"We would expect to see the entire country having reached Iraqi provincial control by the fall of next year," Caldwell said.

Currently only two of Iraq's 18 provinces are under direct Iraqi security control and only two of the country's 10 army divisions answer directly to Maliki rather than to US General George Casey's headquarters.

Caldwell said more US soldiers would be assigned to "transition teams" directly inside Iraqi units to speed their training and coordinate operations with US support units.

Sectarian and insurgent violence has continued unabated in Iraq with dozens killed every day.

On Wednesday at least 17 people were killed in attacks across Iraq, while more than 40 people were killed Tuesday.