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Analysts: Iraq Chaos Demands Urgent Response


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm John Ydstie, sitting in for Steve Inskeep.

Members of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group are keeping quiet about the nature and the content of their last two days of debate. The 10-member commission is charged with reviewing U.S. policy in Iraq. The Group's recommendations are expected in the next few weeks, along with similar reports from the Pentagon, the White House, and the National Security Agency. But events in Iraq - in the region - are moving very quickly, raising questions about how relevant any proposed recommendations may be.

NPR's National Security Correspondent, Jackie Northam, reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM: There was a deliberate, well-executed decision by members of the Iraq Study Group to keep exact details of their two-day debate quiet. But earlier leaks to the press, by members of the commission and some of the experts it talked with, provide a sketch of what recommendations the Group could make in its report. There's likely to be a consensus on a proposal to foster a dialogue with Iran and Syria as part of efforts to find a political solution in Iraq. Where the commission members seem to diverge is on the military question; whether to send in more military advisors or troops, or to begin drawing down American forces.

Les Gelb, the president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, says the Iraq Study Group is wrestling with some very difficult questions.

Mr. LES GELB (President Emeritus, Council on Foreign Relations) That is, what kind of real influence do we have now, to shape events in Iraq, or is the situation beyond our control? What exactly can we do at this stage? What's feasible?

NORTHAM: Gelb says the problem engaging that is the situation is quickly spinning out of control. Hundreds of Iraqis have been killed in sectarian violence, just in the past week.

Ken Pollack, with the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, says whatever strategy is accepted must be put into place quickly.

Mr. KEN POLLACK (Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institution): The ground is eroding under our feet in Iraq, and this is one of the great problems. And it does seem to be moving faster and faster. This unfortunately, is the historical course of many civil wars.

NORTHAM: There are other factors at play which could complicate whatever recommendations the Iraq Study Group, or the other panels, put in their reports. Iraq's neighbors are taking action on their own. Last week, Syria restored diplomatic ties with Iraq; and this week, Iraq's president, Jalal Talabani, met with his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Nora Bensahel, a senior political scientist at the Rand Corporation, says this diplomatic outreach by Syria and Iran may be political posturing. Bensahel says it may be a way of getting ahead of the most likely recommendations by the Iraq Study Group. That is, using a regional framework to help establish stability in Iraq.

Mr. NORA BENSAHEL (Senior Political Scientist, Rand Corporation): Perhaps one of the reasons is, in a way, to try to get ahead of the United States so that efforts to restore those ties and build a cooperative regional solution aren't seen as having followed from what the United States said should happen?

NORTHAM: Both Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Khamenei said Iran wants to help Iraq, calling that a religious and humanitarian duty. Iraq President Talabani, in turn, said his government was in dire need of Iran's help in curbing the increasing violence.

The Brookings Institution's Pollack, says Talabani's visit to Iran should not start alarm bells ringing. The Iraqis have had high-level contact with the Iranians since the fall of Saddam Hussein. And, Pollack says, the Iraqis have to stay on Iran's good side.

Mr. POLLACK: So I wouldn't take Talabani's meeting as a sign that somehow the Kurds or the Iraqis are tilting toward Iran. This is a very important neighbor, it's a very important relationship to them. And what's more, because the situation in Iraq has become so grave, they need to find help wherever they can do it.

NORTHAM: Any attempt to stabilize Iraq is a good thing, says Robert Malley, the Middle East program director at the International Crisis Group. But, Malley says, countries such as Syria and Iran still put their own interests first.

Mr. ROBERT MALLEY (Middle East Program Director, International Crisis Group): Until they see a different U.S. policy in the region - a different U.S. policy towards them - they're not about to be advocating or pushing for the kind of stability in Iraq that would be necessary to meet our needs and the needs of all Iraqis.

NORTHAM: The Iraq Study Group policy recommendations are now being drafted and will land on the president's desk sometime next month.

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.