Apocalypse now: 79 recommendations and a President forced into a corner

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Indy Politics

A gauntlet was thrown at George Bush's feet yesterday when a long-awaited report on Iraq recommended that he seek the help of Iran and Syria, significantly bolster Iraqi forces and prepare to withdraw most US troops within 14 months.

It warned that finding a way forward had to be part of a broader Middle East settlement that established a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestine conflict and provided peace for Lebanon.

In a 100-page, bleak, uncompromising report that contained 79 separate recommendations, the Iraq Study Group warned "the situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating" and that a regional conflict could be triggered if things continued to slide. It added: "There is no path that can guarantee success but the prospects can be improved."

Many of the report's recommendations had been leaked in advance and in some cases - for instance the deployment of US troops with Iraqi units - are already being carried out on the ground.

But, crucially, the bipartisan report may provide the political cover required by Mr Bush to break from his refusal to alter strategy.

With every day bringing more bad news from Iraq, and with US casualties having passed 2,900, Mr Bush is under increasing pressure to offer a solution to the violence and to find some way of withdrawing the 140,000 US troops.

On Tuesday his nominee for Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, admitted the US was not winning in Iraq and last night Tony Blair arrived in Washington intent on pressing the President to adopt the ISG's proposal of finding a regional solution. The two leaders are due meet later today. Before leaving for the US, Mr Blair was challenged in the Commons by the Tory leader, David Cameron, as to whether he agreed with Mr Gates's bleak assessment.

The Prime Minister replied: "Of course. On July I said myself that the situation Baghdad with sectarian killing was appalling and the bloodshed was appalling.

"What is important, however, is, as he went on to say, that we do go on to succeed in the mission that we have set ourselves."

Mr Bush said he would take "every proposal seriously and we will act in a timely fashion". But the President is not obliged to adopt the report's recommendations and he has continued to insist he is not seeking a "graceful exit out of Iraq".

The report does not directly criticise the government and neither does it consider how the US happens to be involved in a bitter, bloody conflict that has claimed the lives of perhaps 655,000 Iraqis. But taken together, its recommendations can be read as both a clear rebuke of the Bush administration's policies in Iraq and a rejection of its rhetoric about the extent to which events have slipped out of US control.

For instance, whereas Mr Bush pursued a policy of unilateralism, the report now recommends launching a "diplomatic offensive"; whereas Mr Bush insists the US is "winning", the report makes clear that attacks against US and Iraqi forces are "persistent and growing"; whereas Mr Bush often speaks as though the US is the blameless bystander in the middle of a sectarian war the report makes clear that "because events in Iraq have been set in motion by American decisions and actions, the US has both a national and moral interest in doing what it can to give Iraqis an opportunity to avert anarchy". It concludes that the current strategy "is not working".

In addition to recommending that the number of US troops embedded with Iraqi forces be increased in the short term from 4,000 to up to 20,000, the report also considers ways of improving Iraq's oil sector, the reconstruction efforts and US intelligence capacity.

It said there was significant under-reporting of the level of violence in Iraq and raised questions about the effectiveness of US intelligence saying the government "still does not understand very well either the insurgency in Iraq or the role of the militias".

Though written overwhelmingly from a US perspective, the report also stresses the issues faced by the Iraqi population. "There is great suffering and the daily lives of many Iraqis show little or no improvement," it says. "Pessimism is pervasive."

Underlining such an assessment, at least eight more people were killed and dozens wounded yesterday in the Sadr City district of Baghdad by a mortar assault and a suicide bomb attack.

The devastating findings

* US should launch new diplomatic offensive to build an international consensus for stability in Iraq and the region, drawing in every country that has an interest in avoiding a chaotic Iraq, including all of its neighbours. They and other key states should form a support group to reinforce security and national reconciliation within Iraq

* US should engage Iran and Syria constructively, given their ability to influence events within Iraq. Iran should stem the flow of arms and training to Iraq, respect Iraq's sovereignty and territorial integrity and use its influence over Iraqi Shia groups to encourage national reconciliation. The issue of Iran's nuclear programme should continue to be dealt with by the permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany. Syria should control its border with Iraq to stem the flow of funding, insurgents and terrorists in and out of Iraq

* Troops not needed for force protection could be pulled out of Iraq by the first quarter of 2008, depending on the security situation. "Substantially more" US combat troops should switch to a role of training and advising Iraqi security forces by working within Iraqi units

* There must be a renewed and sustained commitment by the United States to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace on all fronts.