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New life for Iraq Study Group's plan?

It's attracting new interest on the Hill, being less divisive than other war policy options.

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A majority of Congress may want some kind of redirection of the US effort in Iraq, but finding bipartisan consensus on what that change in strategy should be has not been easy – as demonstrated by the politicized Senate debate this week over proposed troop withdrawals.

That is one reason the idea of reviving last year's bipartisan Iraq Study Group (ISG) and adopting its recommendations has caught on with representatives of both major political parties. And as other proposals with more teeth fall in partisan defeat, the 79 recommendations of the ISG, shelved by a tepid White House last December, could be dusted off.

"What it shows is that people are reaching desperately for something that all parties can agree on and which is different from the current course," says Wayne White, a former State Department Middle East analyst who was among a group of experts consulted by the ISG.

Interest in a bipartisan report from last year suggests a high level of frustration with both the lack of progress in Iraq and the deep fissures that have developed in Washington over Iraq policy.

The ISG was a congressional initiative led by former Secretary of State James Baker, a Republican, and by former Democratic congressman and foreign-policy expert Lee Hamilton. It concluded with great fanfare last December that the US should retool the American engagement in Iraq in three ways:

• A focus on training Iraqi security forces.

• A robust regional and international diplomatic effort.

• Adoption of benchmarks that would require the Iraqi government to move toward national reconciliation.

The report also set a goal of drawing down US troops in Iraq in 2008 but did not call for a timetable for withdrawal.

Seven months later, two senators – Ken Salazar (D) of Colorado and Lamar Alexander (R) of Tennessee – are sponsoring legislation that would make the ISG recommendations US policy. Some Democrats criticize the idea as weak and outdated, while some Republicans reject it for pressuring the White House to change course before President Bush's "surge" strategy has had a chance to work.

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