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Iraq Panel Could Spur Bipartisan Cooperation


President Bush and members of Congress from both political parties have generally welcomed the recommendations put forward by the Iraq Study Group headed by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Congressman Lee Hamilton. While there is no guarantee that the proposals will be adopted, official Washington is also taking note of the bipartisan consensus reached by the commission, a rare event in the age of polarized U.S. politics. VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.

The Iraq panel includes 10 distinguished Americans, five Republicans and five Democrats, who have a wealth of experience in government going back decades.

In presenting their recommendations to President Bush and the Congress, study group members knew they faced the formidable task of trying to heal the domestic political divisions sparked by the war in Iraq.

Panel co-chairman Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana said, "We also hope that our report will help bridge the divide in this country on the Iraq war and will at least be a beginning of a consensus here."

"Because without that consensus in the country, we do not think ultimately you can succeed in Iraq," he added.

Most members of Congress welcomed the report, but many stopped short of endorsing its recommendations.

Senator Joseph Lieberman, a Democrat from Connecticut, praised the bipartisan approach of the Iraq Study Group.

"I think perhaps the most significant thing you have done is to set an example for us that five Democrats and five Republicans sat and reasoned together about what we should do in Iraq to succeed," he said.

But the praise from lawmakers of both parties for the Baker-Hamilton commission's bipartisan approach does not guarantee congressional support for its recommendations, especially a push for troop withdrawals by 2008 and a call to engage Syria and Iran.

Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona said, "I believe that this is a recipe that will lead to, sooner or later, our defeat in Iraq."

President Bush also praised the panel's efforts, even as he indicated he would resist some of the key recommendations.

But Mr. Bush agreed that finding a way forward in Iraq will be a major test of whether Congress can put aside political differences and approach tough problems in a bipartisan manner.

He said the American people will be watching.

"They have seen elections and they saw all the bitterness, you know, finger-pointing and name calling and they wonder whether or not we can work together on this important cause, and I believe we can," Mr. Bush said.

Some experts believe the Iraq panel has already succeeded in changing the nature of the debate on Iraq by trying to focus on practical steps that enhance the chance for success, but in a way that tries to minimize political differences.

James Carafano, a defense historian with the Heritage Foundation in Washington, said, "So I think Americans widely respect them, they have an enormous amount of expertise, they have done a lot of good, positive things in our country, and if these people can get together and say, look, reasonable Americans should be able to agree on this and this is the situation that we are facing, it really provides an opportunity for people to put politics aside."

Closing the political divide on Iraq will not be easy. Even the independent commission that investigated the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States had difficulty getting some of its recommendations enacted into law by the Congress.

Georgetown University expert Stephen Wayne says the polarized political environment in the United States has been years in the making.

He said, "Part of the strong feeling of Democrats against Republicans and Republicans against Democrats has come from this strong partisanship reinforced by ideology."

"Republicans are conservative, Democrats are more moderate and liberal. So the stakes are high because one group feels if the other group gains power, they might as well move to another country," he continued.

Former Republican Senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming is a member of the Iraq Study Group. He hopes the country will take some encouragement from the panel's ability to achieve bipartisan consensus on the way forward in Iraq.

"We are just sincere enough to believe that it will [work] and that all people with a 'D' [for Democrat] behind their name did not become a guard at Lenin's tomb and all people with an 'R' [for Republican] behind their name did not crawl out of a cave in the mountains, and that maybe we can do something and that is what we are here for. People of good will, of good faith, maybe it is corny, maybe it will not work, but it sure as hell is better than sitting there where we are right now," he said.

The first test for this new spirit of bipartisanship comes next month when Democrats retake control of Congress for the first time since 1994, setting up the prospect of confrontation with the president in the final two years of his term.

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