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Iraq Study Group Calls for Major Military Changes

Some of the major recommendations of Wednesday's Iraq Study Group report involve changes in the U.S. military mission and strategy in the country. VOA Pentagon Correspondent Al Pessin reports on those recommendations, some of which U.S. military commanders have already begun implementing on their own.

Listing the most important of the group's 79 recommendations, co-chairman Lee Hamilton put the military changes at the top.

"First, a change in the primary mission of U.S. forces in Iraq that will enable the United States to begin to move its combat forces out of Iraq responsibly," said Lee Hamilton.

He said the bi-partisan 10-member group agreed unanimously on all its recommendations, including setting a target date of early 2008 for the withdrawal of nearly all U.S. combat forces from Iraq.

"The primary mission of U.S. forces in Iraq should evolve to one of supporting the Iraqi army, which would take over primary responsibility for combat operations," he said.

The report says that support mission should include help with logistics, communications, transportation and air power, as well as rapid reaction capability and a major role in the hunt for al-Qaida terrorists.

The group says the main thrust of U.S. military involvement in Iraq should become training, with a five-fold increase from 4,000 to about 20,000 American military trainers in Iraq. And it says they should be for the first time assigned even to small units of 50-100 Iraqi soldiers. The report says the U.S. military should put its best troops in the training jobs and should reward them for such service. Commission member and former Defense Secretary William Perry.

"We believe that the thing they needed at this stage, to be able to come up to the task they have is, effectively, on-the-job training," said William Perry. "And that on-the-job training can be best done when they have role models of American teams in front of them."

Perry says he believes the increase in trainers can be made without increasing the overall number of U.S. troops in Iraq, currently about 140,000.

Another commission member, former Senator Charles Robb, says the move to primarily a training role is a significant policy shift.

"This represents a dramatic change in the way we have been doing business," said Charles Robb. "It represents a clear break from the past tradition of being the principal combat units to a role of combat support."

The group also says the Iraqi military should be given better equipment, perhaps by having departing U.S. units leave their equipment behind. It calls for better U.S. civilian and military intelligence gathering and analysis on Iraq to improve U.S. understanding of the situation there, and how to improve it. And it says the president and the congress should ensure that the global U.S. military capability is restored and enhanced as the combat commitment in Iraq is reduced.

But some of the Group's recommendations sound a lot like what senior U.S. military commanders have been saying for some time. The commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, General John Abizaid, told congress a month ago that he is already moving more troops into training roles.

"We must significantly increase our ability to help the Iraqi Army by putting more American troops with Iraqi units in military transition teams to speed the amount of training that is done, to speed the amount of heavy weapons that get there, and to speed the ability of Iraqi troops to deploy," said General Abizaid.

And General Abizaid's top commander in Iraq, General George Casey, has predicted that Iraqi forces should be able to take responsibility for security throughout the country within about the same roughly 16-month timeframe that the Study Group calls for.

Analyst and former senior Defense official Michele Flournoy of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says the Study Group's recommendations are the kind of changes in U.S. military strategy that are needed in Iraq. But aside from a few things already in progress, like the shift to more training, Flournoy is not convinced that the Bush administration is prepared to make the kind of grand change in strategy that the Study Group wants.

"If you compare that to what some of the administration's spokespeople were saying over the weekend on the various talk shows, they seem to be saying, 'No, no, no, we've got it all under control, " said Michele Flournoy. "We're taking all this into account, and, yes, there'll be some changes but, you know, not along the lines of what's being recommended.'"

Wednesday's report also says the United States may need to provide military support to Iraq for a long time, but it should avoid an open-ended commitment to keeping large numbers of troops there. And it says the withdrawal of most U.S. combat troops should not be contingent on any actions by the Iraqi government.

Officially, on Wednesday, the Pentagon had no comment on the report, and the White House said it is taking the recommendations seriously as part of its overall policy review. Members of congress also had generally cautious reactions to the report. And officials say it will be several weeks at least before any new policy is announced.

Analyst Michele Flournoy says even if some of its recommendations are rejected, the most important achievement of the Iraq Study Group will be that review process itself.

"What I do think the Study Group will achieve no matter what is that they have started a national dialogue on Iraq that is long overdue, and that can't be put back in the box," she said.

One of the most important participants in that dialogue will be the new Defense Secretary, Robert Gates. But indications are that he may not take office for nearly two weeks so he can finish up what officials call some business related to his current job as president of Texas A&M University.