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New voices weigh in on Iraq

As doubts rise over the war's handling, the Iraq Study Group aims to be a fresh influence.

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Amid slumping poll numbers for President Bush and defections of retired military brass and conservative heavyweights over the handling of the Iraq war, some of Washington's most effective insiders are reaching out to help the White House.

In another era, they'd be called "the wise men" - although this group includes a woman, former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. They're the ones a president calls on, or who call on him, when something needs fixing, usually a war.

"This is a big mountain to climb: to try to identify for the country the path forward in Iraq," said former Rep. Lee Hamilton, co-chair of the 10-member Iraq Study Group (ISG), after its first meeting last week.

Created by Congress, the ISG aims to make a forward-looking, independent assessment of the situation on the ground in Iraq. Like the 9/11 commission, also co-chaired by Mr. Hamilton, it ruled out any interest in assigning blame.

Indeed, some prominent experts wouldn't be part of the group, because they had already taken a position on the war.

"We are looking for insights and advice that might be helpful to the president," said former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, the other cochair, on Tuesday.

While Mr. Bush has said he "welcomes" the initiative, he has yet to fully endorse it. Sources close to the Iraq Study Group say the White House is waiting to see if it is going to be independent or fall into a pattern of partisan, campaign-season attacks.

"If this group does a good job, they could help kick this administration out of a quagmire," says Pamela Keeton of the United States Institute of Peace, an independent Washington institution funded by Congress, and a lead ISG sponsor.

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