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Bush's last chance in Iraq

The long-awaited Iraq Study Group report released Wednesday, the same day 11 more American soldiers were killed in combat, didn't mince words in stating the obvious. "The situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating'' and "there is no path that can guarantee success.'' The Iraqi army has made only "fitful progress'' toward becoming a disciplined fighting force, and the Iraqi police are "substantially worse'' than the army. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki "has taken little meaningful action'' against sectarian militias and death squads.

The bottom line: Anything we do now may be too little, too late, but we should at least pursue new policies to give Iraq a final chance to pull itself together. "No one can guarantee that any course of action in Iraq at this point will stop sectarian warfare, growing violence or a slide toward chaos,'' the group's co-chairmen, former Secretary of State James Baker and former congressman Lee Hamilton, warned in a joint letter accompanying the report. "If current trends continue, the potential consequences are severe.''

Whether President Bush realizes it or not, the Baker-Hamilton report, a blistering indictment of virtually every aspect of his Iraq policy, provides him with bipartisan political cover for what may well be his last, best chance to change course. Will he seize the opportunity or hunker down in denial? With young Americans dying every day in Iraq, this is no time for the president to let his stubborn streak take charge.

Bush said Wednesday he will "seriously'' consider the group's 79 recommendations, but less than 24 hours later rejected its recommendation calling for withdrawal of U.S. combat forces by early 2008. Bush reiterated his position that American troops would remain in Iraq until their work is done, although it's not clear what their unfinished work is, other than training the Iraqi military to take over. At his Thursday news conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the president said going forward any policy changes will be shaped not only by study group's recommendations but by the advice of his own national security team and military advisers.

Among the bipartisan group's recommendations: U.S. forces should be shifted from combat to training the Iraqi military and police, and American combat brigades except for those needed for force protection could be withdrawn in early 2008. A new Iraq strategy should include a regional diplomatic offensive, including direct talks with Iran and Syria and an aggressive push to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The United States should set specific "milestones'' for the Iraqi government on security and national reconciliation as a condition of continued U.S. military, economic and political support. And as the price of reconciliation in Iraq, Washington will have to accept amnesty for Iraqis who have fought American forces, an unpalatable choice that is sure to stir controversy here at home.

The study group's report, which includes what some see as some wishful thinking, may have more impact on the political debate in Washington than on the ground in Iraq. For example, U.S. military commanders in Iraq, according to a report in the New York Times, suggest that the group is naive to think that the Iraqi army can be trained to take over security from American forces within an year. The commanders say that task is much more complex and daunting than members of the Baker-Hamilton group seem to realize.

There is also the question of whether Iran and Syria, both of which would feel the spillover effects of a Iraqi civil war, are interested in helping the Bush administration, which so far has rejected direct talks with the two countries. And it certainly would be nice if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could be settled in the process of fixing Iraq, but that's something that four decades of American diplomacy has failed to achieve.

None of the group's recommendations are likely to amount to much unless the Iraqi government steps up to its responsibility to establish security and stability in the country, something it so far has been either unwilling or unable to do. Unless the Maliki government demonstrates that it is ready to be a reliable partner in ending the sectarian violence, there is no point in sacrificing more American blood and treasure in that tortured and wasted land.

The way things are going, events - and not policymakers and study groups - may ultimately determine the outcome in Iraq. And it's likely to be an ugly one.

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