An Iraq Study Group mandated by Congress on Wednesday called for a new United States strategy in Iraq, calling for broader diplomatic efforts, more emphasis on training of Iraqi troops and withdrawing combat troops by as early as 2008.

“The situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating,” said the non-binding report of a 10-member bi-partisan group led by co-chairmen former Secretary of State James Baker and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton. “There is no path that can guarantee success, but the prospects can be improved.”

The 160-page report contained a total of 79 recommendations. President Bush said the report “will be taken very seriously” by his administration.

“We do not recommend a stay-the-course solution,” Baker, who has long ties to the Bush family, said at a press conference. “In our opinion, that approach is no longer viable.”

Hamilton, a former Indiana congressman who served 34 years in the House of Representatives, added: “The current approach is not working. And the ability of the United States to influence events is diminishing. Many Americans are understandably dissatisfied. Our ship of state has hit rough waters. It must now chart a new way forward.”

A comprehensive strategy laid out by the study committee called for increased diplomatic efforts with Iraq’s neighbors, including Iran and Syria, where U.S. relations are currently strained, to increase stability in the region.

It called for shifting the mission of the U.S. military to support and training for the Iraqi army instead of direct combat. It recommended, barring unforeseen developments, removal of all combat brigades not necessary for force protection by the first quarter of 2008.

“The Bush administration has avoided straight talk about Iraq since the summer of 2003,” said Robert Parham of the Baptist Center for Ethics. “The Bush administration has continued to make misleading claims about progress, to blame the media for the bad news in Iraq, to accuse opponents of the war of being terrorist allies and to use the war to pursue a divisive partisan agenda.”

“Thankfully a bi-partisan group of prominent Americans has rebuked the administration’s approach to Iraq and insisted on a new course,” Parham said. “Hopefully their work will contribute to straight talk, the first step toward a constructive public discourse about how we can end this failed war. Now would be a good time for churches to talk more openly and candidly about what it means to pursue the things that make for peace.”

As far back as July 2003 Parham called for “straight talk” about the war in Iraq. In September 2003 he chided politicians for blaming the media for reports the war wasn’t going well. In June 2005 Parham said Americans needed the truth if they were expected to trust leaders running the war.

“It took a governmental study to determine what most Americans already knew for some time, that in spite of Vice President Cheney’s assurance that the insurgency is in its final throes, we are not only losing the war, but increasing the opportunity for more terrorism and creating greater instability in the region,” said Miguel De La Torre, director of the Justice and Peace Institute at Iliff School of Theology.

Glenn Hinson, senior professor of church history and spirituality at the Baptist Seminary of Kentucky, said the most heartening aspect is that the group tried seriously to act cooperatively as a bi-partisan committee.

“I’m not at all sure that this group or any other can show us how to make this ill-conceived and misguided venture turn out to the benefit either of Iraq or the United States, but they have made a valiant effort,” Hinson said. “I pray that the new U.S. Congress and the Bush administration will learn from this group how much better it is for our nation and our world to listen to one another and to strive for consensus.”

Bruce Prescott of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists called it “probably the best course of action possible when the goal is uniting Americans to keep on fighting in Iraq.”

“My opinion about Iraq is that we broke it and we can’t fix it,” Prescott wrote in a Wednesday blog. “The sooner we get out of there and let Iran, Syria and other Arab states broker a deal between the militias to end the violence, the better it will be for most of the Iraqi people.”

The National Council of Churches said the recommendations “generally resonate” with those of church leaders and urged President Bush and Congress to “understand the opportunity presented by this report.”

Last month the NCC General Assembly endorsed a pastoral letter urging an end to the war.

But De La Torre, a regular columnist for, said the report doesn’t go far enough.

“Missing from the report is any explanation why we are there in the first place,” he said, “to continue sacrificing young Americans–and countless Iraqi–to expand U.S. business interests.

“The Iraqi war, as has been well proven, has nothing to do with 9/11 or weapons of mass destruction. For this reason, it continues to be the greatest moral travesty of this new millennium.

“What the report fails to mention is that this administration has successfully made the U.S. flag the symbol of tyranny, oppression, and economic imperialism. On the day of judgment when nations stand before God’s throne, I can only hope for mercy for this nation.”

The report noted that the American military is stressed to the point that it could jeopardize its ability to defend the U.S. and to fight the war in Afghanistan.

About 141,000 U.S. military personnel are now serving in Iraq, alongside 16,500 soldiers from 27 coalition partners. The largest, with 7,200 troops, is from the United Kingdom. There are also 1,000 Americans who work at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. Another 5,000 civilian contractors are in the country.

Nearly every U.S. Army and Marine combat unit and several National Guard and Reserve units have been deployed to Iraq at least once, and many are on their second or third rotations.

Nearly 2,900 Americans have died serving in Iraq. Another 21,000 have been wounded, many severely. So far the U.S. government has spent $400 billion for the war, and the costs are running about $8 billion a month. Before all is said and done, estimates of the final cost of U.S. involvement are estimated as high as $2 trillion.

The U.S. should not make an open-ended commitment to keep large numbers of troops in Iraq, the group recommended, but warned that a premature pullout could lead to more violence.

Nevertheless, the report said, Iraq’s government should be put on notice that the U.S. could carry out its plans even if Iraq does not implement its own timetable for changes.

The report also said no comprehensive plan for Mideast peace can succeed without addressing the Arab-Israeli conflict. It calls for a two-state solution to the Palestinian issue, for Syria to cease aid to Hezbollah and for Israel in turn to return the Golan Heights.

Corinne Whitlatch of Churches for Middle East Peace applauded that recommendation.

“The Palestinian people and Israeli people need an end of this tragic conflict and the occupation that has crippled the lives and future of both peoples,” she said in an e-mail interview. “Now we–the peace-seeking public–must convince President Bush to exercise the leadership that will be required.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of

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