With Iraq in the midst of civil war, or something even worse, the bipartisan committee headed by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.) last week released its long-awaited plan for the future of Iraq, the Iraq Study Group Report.

Sarah Royce

Among its 79 policy recommendations, the most controversial are its calls for negotiations with neighboring Syria and Iran and gradual troop reductions beginning in early 2008. Since its release, the report has come under fire for its vague suggestions and emphasis on handing more power over to the weak, divided Iraqi government that many think is incapable of ensuring its citizens’ security.

But the significance of the report is its acknowledgment that the current policy is ineffective. The situation in Iraq is bad – very bad – and there are no clear policy options that can instantly resolve the conflict. Nevertheless, the Democratic Congress, the new secretary of defense and the Baker group’s recommendations all offer opportunities that President Bush must heed to protect Iraqi civilians and American soldiers alike.

Three years after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, few still contend that the war was a good idea. After ignoring the international community and failing to create a military plan to bring security to the country, the U.S.-led coalition’s invasion sparked a chain of events that has since devolved into a sectarian struggle that U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan contends is “much worse” than a civil war and has destabilized the region.

While there is plenty of room for I-told-you-so’s and bitterness at the arrogance and neglect that went into starting such an ill-founded war, the present situation is a humanitarian crisis that needs to be addressed. Statistics by the Brookings Institution estimate that civilian deaths total more than 62,000 deaths since 2003. An estimate published in The Lancet, a respected British medical journal, that attempted to factor in unreported deaths put the number closer to 655,000. There’s no good way to resolve such varied casualty estimates because the security situation is too dangerous to permit extensive field research.

Violence has turned daily life in Iraq into social chaos. Each month, more than 100,000 Iraqi civilians flee to neighboring Jordan and Syria. The United Nations estimates that almost 500,000 Iraqis have been internally displaced since February. Across the country, schools have been shut down and transformed into makeshift shelters. Wounded civilians fear going to increasingly dangerous hospitals – if hospitals even exist in their area. Violence continues to prevail. Just yesterday, at least 70 civilians were killed and an estimated 230 were wounded in a central Baghdad suicide bombing.

In response to this situation and to the study group’s report, the Bush Administration so far has been unreceptive and uncompromising. With civilian causalities rising each day, the president continues stalling the formulation of the new policy he has promised. At first the president contended that the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group could only be considered after reports from the Pentagon and the National Security Council. After promising a report before Christmas, White House spokesman Tony Snow said yesterday it will be January at the earliest.

Unfortunately, the administration’s unwillingness to compromise is exactly what brought about this situation. The presence of the United States in Iraq continues to compromise security, and the president needs to use the fresh perspectives of the report, the Democratic Congress and incoming Defense Secretary Robert Gates to formulate a responsible withdrawal policy. If the administration cannot learn from its mistakes, the situation could evolve into a decades-long civil war that ravaged Lebanon – a frightening prospect for both the region and the world.

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