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Iraq draft focuses on Syria and Iran

A draft report on strategies for Iraq, which will be debated by a bipartisan commission beginning today, urges an aggressive regional diplomatic initiative that includes direct talks with Iran and Syria, but sets no timetables for a military withdrawal, officials who have seen all or parts of the document told the New York Times.

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 that announcing a major withdrawal is the only way to persuade the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to focus on creating an effective Iraqi military force.

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that within a specified period of time, perhaps as short as a year, a significant number of U.S. troops should be withdrawn, regardless of whether the Iraqi government's own forces are declared ready to defend the country themselves.

One proposal would involve putting more U.S. trainers into Iraqi military units , coupled with a withdrawal that in a year would leave between 70,000 and 80,000 U.S. troops in the country, compared with about 150,000 now.

The draft, according to those who have seen it, appears to link U.S. withdrawal to the performance of the Iraqi military, as President Bush has done. But the performance benchmarks are not specific.

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

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

While the commission has met many times interviewing administration officials, policy experts, military officers and others, the meeting today will be the first time that members have gathered to hash out the most difficult issues. The basis for their discussion will be a draft report that Baker and Hamilton directed the commission staff to prepare based on informal conversations among the members.

The group is expected to present its final report to Bush and to Congress in December.

The commission's co-chairmen have urged members and staff not to discuss their deliberations. As a result, those who were willing to talk about the commission's work and the draft reports did so only on the condition of anonymity.

Bush is not bound by the commission's recommendations, and during a trip to Southeast Asia, he made clear last week that he would also give considerable weight to studies under way by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and his own National Security Council. In Bogor, Indonesia, he said he planned to make no decisions on troop increases or decreases "until I hear from a variety of sources, including our own United States military."

Officials said that the draft of the section on diplomatic strategy, which was heavily influenced by Baker, seemed to reflect his public criticism of the administration for its unwillingness to talk with enemies, and particularly Iran and Syria.

But senior administration officials, including Stephen Hadley, Bush's national security adviser, have expressed skepticism that either nation will go along.

"Talking isn't a strategy," he said in an interview in October. "The issue is how can we condition the environment so that Iran and Syria will make a 180 degree turn, so that rather than undermining the Iraqi government, they will support it."


Iraq developments

The prime minister, president and speaker of Parliament made a joint appearance on national television Sunday to call for an end to the sectarian conflict.

A U.S. soldier was killed Saturday in Diyala province, the military said, and two U.S. Marines were killed in Anbar province.