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Iraq panel finds common ground, it says

A bipartisan commission, under pressure to offer a U.S. exit strategy for the increasingly unpopular war in Iraq, has reached a consensus and will announce its recommendations next week, the group's co-chairman said Wednesday.

Former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., declined to disclose any specifics about the Iraq Study Group's decisions. The report, much anticipated by the Bush administration and members of Congress, is coming out Wednesday amid the spiraling violence in Iraq that has raised questions about the viability of the Iraqi government.

"We're making recommendations," said Hamilton, who led the group with former Secretary of State James A. Baker III.

The group is expected to recommend regional talks involving Syria and Iran. The administration has been reluctant to engage those two countries, which it says have abetted the violence in Iraq.

It was unclear what the group would recommend regarding possible U.S. troop withdrawals, an issue that proved divisive during meetings this week.

The Iraq panel is expected to brief the administration and congressional leaders before making the report public.

Defense officials, meantime, said the Pentagon is developing plans to send four more battalions to Iraq early next year, the Associated Press reported.

The extra combat engineer battalions of Army reserves, would total about 3,500 troops and would come from around the United States, said officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because the deployments have not been announced.

President Bush is under growing pressure to withdraw a substantial number of U.S. troops while shifting more responsibility to the Iraqi government. Even so, top military commanders have said they would consider increasing U.S. troop levels, at least temporarily, if they deemed it necessary.

Also Wednesday ...

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Fierce fighting Wednesday between coalition forces and insurgents shut down the Iraqi city of Baqouba, which has been roiled by violence in recent days, killing scores of militants and civilians. Dozens of bullet-riddled bodies were found around Baghdad.

Suspected insurgents attacked police headquarters in downtown Baqouba, sparking a clash with police that left five of the attackers dead, police said on condition of anonymity, as they regularly do to protect themselves.

Coalition forces backed by U.S. aircraft also killed eight al-Qaida in Iraq insurgents during a raid near the city that also left two Iraqi women dead, the U.S. military said.

The early-morning attack was aimed at detaining Iraqis who were running a known cell of insurgents, the U.S. command said. The soldiers called in air support after coming under heavy fire from rifles and machine guns, the command said.

In Baqouba, capital of Diyala province about 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, the university, public schools and many stores remained closed, and the city's streets were mostly empty, except for a few people who dashed out to small fruit or vegetable stalls to stock up on food.

In a city with a crumbling infrastructure, few residents had electricity and most received only limited water supplies. Widespread fighting has raged in the area for several days. On Tuesday, Diyala police said they found 11 bullet-riddled bodies around Baqouba. Over the weekend, fighting between Iraqi security forces and Sunni Arab insurgents left more than 50 militants dead and dozens wounded.

In all, 15 civilians and 13 insurgents were killed in violence around Iraq on Wednesday, police and U.S. officials said. The mangled bodies of nine civilians who had been kidnapped and tortured also were found, police said.

A total of 52 bullet-riddled bodies, some of them bound and blindfolded and bearing signs of torture, were found in various locations around Baghdad, according to officials of the Interior Ministry.

The U.S. military announced the deaths of two U.S. soldiers.

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