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US Panel Formed to Provide Independent Assessment of Iraq

The U.S. Congress has commissioned a bipartisan panel to provide an independent assessment of the situation in Iraq. The panel's leaders say their group will offer valuable advice to U.S. policymakers.

Congressman Frank Wolf, a Virginia Republican, says lawmakers sought such a commission so they could get a clear picture of the situation in Iraq, one not filtered by U.S. domestic politics.

"The Congress asked for this. A group of us who have been in Iraq a couple of times, Republicans and Democrats, came back in a bipartisan basis to ask for the good of the country to take fresh eyes on the target," Wolf said.

Senator Joe Biden, a Delaware Democrat, says the panel, called the Iraq Study Group, will also recommend a future course of action for the United States and its coalition in Iraq.

"This study group is required not only to look at the situation as it exists now, but look at potential alternatives based on a plan B and a plan C, depending on what happens on the ground," he said.

The group, made up of 10 former government officials, equally divided between Republicans and Democrats, is chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Congressman Lee Hamilton.

Baker, who served in the administration of President Bush's father, acknowledges that his task will not be easy.

"We may indeed have an important opportunity here to help resolve some difficult questions through bipartisan collaboration. But I want to underscore that we are under no illusions whatsoever about the difficulty of this task," he said.

Hamilton, an Indiana Democrat, also served as vice chairman of the commission that probed the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.

The establishment of the panel comes just days before the third anniversary Sunday of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, and amid concerns about a strengthening insurgency and prospects of a civil war.

The panel's unveiling came as the top U.S. commander in Iraq, General John Abizaid, sought to emphasize the positive in offering his assessment of the situation in Iraq in testimony before a House committee.

"I believe that we are not on a verge of a civil war, I believe that the sectarian issues are controllable, and I believe that the government of national unity will emerge, and I believe that the Iraqi security forces will continue to improve. This is not to underplay what is happening there. It is serious. We do need to be concerned," he said. "But I believe the good people of Iraq still have the majority of the people trying to hold the country together and not pull it apart."

The Iraq Study Group's co-chairman, former Congressman Hamilton, denied his panel was formed in response to what many of his fellow Democrats say is the administration's overly optimistic assessment of the situation in Iraq.

"We have not tried to make a judgment at this point as to where we are right now," he said.

Hamilton says his group will study the political and security situation in Iraq, economic reconstruction in the country, and the strategic environment in the region.

Other members of the panel include former Central Intelligence Agency Director Robert Gates, former Senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming, and former New York City Mayor Rudolph Guiliani, all Republicans. The Democrats on the panel include former Defense Secretary William Perry, former Senator Chuck Robb of Virginia, and Leon Panetta, who served as chief of staff for President Clinton.

The effort is being coordinated with support from the non-partisan U.S. Institute for Peace, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the James Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Texas.