BAGHDAD, Iraq – With President Bush set to meet Monday with a bipartisan Iraq study group co-chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker, Iraqis are bracing for a significant shift in U.S. strategy as the White House considers a bevy of ideas, proposals and options on how to move forward in Iraq.

After Tuesday’s overwhelming Democratic election victory and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s abrupt resignation, Iraq’s parliamentarians and political operatives believe that the U.S. approach to their war-torn country is about to undergo a major overhaul.

But the view from Baghdad is that many of the proposals floating around Washington-such as a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops, using U.S. forces only in emergencies from outside the country, or persuading Iran and Syria to get more involved – are fraught with problems, none assuring a certain and quick solution.

“It is probably a good thing for Iraq that there has been this big change in Washington, because it will force the Bush administration to consider new ideas,” said parliamentarian Haider al-Ebadi, a senior member of the Shiite Dawa Party. “The concern is that Washington will impose changes too fast and further than the Iraqis are ready to go.”

On Friday, Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the military would be doing its own review of its Iraq strategy.

“We have to give ourselves a good honest scrub about what is working and what is not working, what are the impediments to progress and what should we change about the way we are doing it to make sure that we get to the objective that we set for ourselves,” Pace told CBS’s “Early Show.”

Said Stephen Hadley, the president’s national security adviser, “The president said the other day that what was going on in Iraq in terms of our efforts (was) not working well enough and not working fast enough. And the question is, that being the judgment, how can we do better? And I think there’s an opportunity for Republicans and Democrats to share some ideas on how to do that.”

The 10-member Iraqi Study Group, led by Baker and former Sen. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., has made several fact-finding missions to Iraq and has interviewed hundreds of officials and experts since it was formed in March. Before the end of the year, it is expected to hand President Bush a set of recommendations on how to accelerate progress in Iraq.

Baker is a longtime confidante and adviser to the president’s father, President George H.W. Bush. Robert Gates, the former CIA director picked by the president to replace Rumsfeld, also has been a member of the group, although White House spokesman Tony Snow said Friday he would be resigning from the panel.

The group will meet Monday with the president, Vice President Dick Cheney and Hadley.

For months, various proposals for an alternative Iraq strategy have been bouncing around Washington, with several Democratic leaders and think tanks forwarding their own programs. The election results gave the Democrats and administration outsiders an opening to push them again.

Even before the panel was convened, Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, published a proposal that Iraq should be divided into three loosely connected states – Kurds in the north, Sunnis in central Iraq and Shiites in the south-that would share oil revenues.

In the past, Bush has expressed strong opposition to such a plan, and the program has little support in Iraq.

Even Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, whose fellow Kurds in the relatively peaceful north would have the most to gain from a partition of Iraq, has said that such a plan is unfeasible for the time being. Others have predicted that such a plan would destabilize the region and mark the first step to a civil war.

Baker and other members of the Iraq panel have tried to keep their observations and conclusions close to their vests. But in public statements, Baker has indicated he opposes an immediate withdrawal of troops but believes there is an alternative to the “stay the course” stance of the White House.

Biden and others have suggested setting a deadline for most troops to be redeployed outside of Iraq, perhaps as early as the end of 2007. A Democratic proposal in the U.S. House would begin the redeployment before the end of this year. And some have proposed pulling troops back just to Kurdistan or Kuwait and deploying them quickly only when Iraq’s own security forces run into trouble.

But Iraqi officials on the ground say that it is too soon to think about shifting U.S. troops out of the country.

Various polls, including one commissioned by the U.S. State Department, show that a vast majority of Iraqis want the U.S. military to withdraw from Iraq. But Iraqi leaders, even from factions opposed to the presence of U.S. forces, say a pullout must come only after a semblance of normalcy has been established.

Talabani said Thursday that he had spoken with Democratic leaders who assured him there were no plans for a quick withdrawal of U.S. forces.

“One of them told me that any early withdrawal will be a catastrophe for the United States and the world,” Talabani told Al Jazeera satellite TV station. “We are being subjected to a foreign invasion (of non-Iraqi, anti-U.S. insurgents), and we don’t have enough forces to fight this invasion.”

Saleem Abdullah, a spokesman for the leading Sunni bloc in parliament, said that he has conflicting views about the American presence in Iraq. Realistically, Iraqis will need U.S. forces to stay in the country for the next 7 to 10 years, he said.

“Personally, it tears at me every day to see these occupiers in our country,” Abdullah said. “They are to blame for the broken political system they have put in place and all our hardships. But if they leave too soon it will be chaos.”

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., an almost certain contender for the GOP presidential nomination in 2008, has suggested the polar opposite to calls for withdrawal. He says the answer may lie in significantly increasing troop levels on the ground in Iraq, at least in the short term, beyond the 149,000 already there.

On Wednesday, as McCain told reporters in Arizona he thought part of the U.S. military needs to focus on eliminating anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. The radical cleric controls the Mahdi Army militia and is blamed by the U.S. for much of the sectarian killing in Iraq, but he also enjoys an alliance with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a fellow Shiite.

“I believe al-Sadr has to be taken out,” McCain said.

Gates, the defense secretary designate, has said in the past that the U.S. should be open to holding a summit with Iran and Syria to seek their help in securing Iraq’s borders from outside insurgents and influencing the different factions inside the country.

Baker, who recently has met with top Syrian and Iranian officials, has indicated he believes that directly engaging both countries is in the U.S. interest, even though the Bush administration has refused to consider talking to those countries and other perceived enemies.

Baker, who in the past played a significant role in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, also has hinted that he believes solving broader Mideast issues could help in Iraq.

“It’s not appeasement to talk to your enemies,” Baker told reporters last month.

Abbas al-Bayati, a Shiite parliamentarian, said he is hopeful the Iraq panel also will push the White House to repair its relationship with much of the European community, which was marginalized in Iraq because of its opposition to the war.

“I think the Baker-Hamilton report will make it possible (for) the approach to solving Iraq’s problems (to be) internationalized,” al-Bayati said. “I think the Americans and European community understand that Iraq is just a square in the Middle East problem that has to be solved and the international community has an interest in solving it.”

Moderate Democrats and others who support the phased withdrawal of troops suggest that only that threat may force Iraqi leaders to make difficult decisions toward promoting national reconciliation, defining a federalist system and setting up a way to equitably divvy up the countries oil revenues.

Bush has expressed opposition to such timelines, because he believes it would gives insurgents the ability to wait out the Americans. Iraqi officials also object.

“To come to this country and leave it without a security force that can protect us . . . that would be immoral and would leave us in a very difficult situation,” al-Bayati said.


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