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Iraq Group to Call for Pulling Back Troops

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

The Iraq Study Group has reached a consensus on a highly anticipated report assessing U.S. policy in Iraq. The New York Times reports that one of the key recommendations the bipartisan commission will make is for a gradual drawdown of U.S. troops, but the Times' report says the panel will not suggest a specific timetable.

The military strategy was reportedly the most divisive issue for the commission members, says NPR's Jackie Northam.

JACKIE NORTHAM: People close to the deliberations of the Iraq Study Group say that most members and the experts they talked with agreed that a withdrawal of U.S. troops must be an integral part of a strategy for Iraq. That was the easy part.

The big, difficult questions the commission had to grapple with were how and when. President Bush has always maintained that U.S. troops will not cut and run. Perhaps sensing that any suggestions to the contrary might be ignored, the Iraq Study Group reportedly did not broach the question of a timetable. Exactly how a withdrawal might look will become clearer when the group issues its report next week.

But it's already been leaked to the press that the commission will call for a gradual drawdown of U.S. combat forces. Michael Vickers, a defense analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, says reducing the number of combat troops would represent a fundamental shift.

Mr. MICHAEL VICKERS (Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments): There would be a transition to an Iraqi-centric approach to security with Americans in support, rather than an American-centric approach in the primary direct combat role. And so the overall force might only be reduced by half, but the orientation of the force more as advisors and trainers accompanying Iraqis now on the front lines would be a major, major shift in orientation.

NORTHAM: The study group reportedly doesn't specify where the U.S. combat forces would be shifted, whether back home, to neighboring countries or to key areas inside Iraq. Pentagon officials are already planning to move several thousand more troops into Baghdad. Retired Army Major General Robert Scales says this is a smart move militarily.

Major General ROBERT SCALES (Retired, U.S. Army): At the end of the day, the main thing in this war is security inside the city limits of Baghdad. Whoever owns the security situation in Baghdad at the end of the day is the one who's going to own the political situation there.

NORTHAM: General Scales says consolidating American troops into places such as Baghdad wouldn't mean the military is going to stop fighting. U.S. combat forces would still likely be used for major strikes against concentrations of Iraqi insurgents and to protect American military advisors.

Anthony Cordesman with the Center for Strategic and International Studies says it's unlikely the Iraq Study Group will recommend altering troop deployments or drawing down their numbers without putting it into a broader context.

Mr. ANTHONY CORDESMAN (Center for Strategic and International Studies): You can't separate politics from economics, the Army from the police, the security presence of U.S. forces from what happens to Iraqi forces. You have to have a strategy for dealing with the neighbors. And any sensible options paper is going to be a strategy. It's not going to be simply withdraw or reinforcement, focus only on the security dimension.

NORTHAM: Cordesman says the co-chairs of the Iraq Study Group, former Secretary of State James Baker, a Republican, and former Indiana Congressman Lee Hamilton, a Democrat, understand the complexity of the problems in Iraq and are trying to tamp down broad expectations in their report.

Mr. CORDESMAN: The political dynamics often inside the U.S. are find some simple solution, some silver bullet, choose that as an alternative to what you're doing now and somehow it's going to solve everything. Well, as Secretary Baker and Congressman Hamilton have said, there are no silver bullets. And this is the only message they've very clearly given to date.

NORTHAM: President Bush says he is willing to listen to any ideas for Iraq. He will have other options beyond what the Iraq Study Group offers. Several other reviews by key government agencies are also expected soon.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.