The 160-page report released Dec. 6 by the Iraq Study Group is, as reports from bipartisan panels go, broad enough to leave something for everyone. Democrats see in it an indictment of the president's war policy while Republicans note that the report does not set a timetable for drastic troop withdrawal, as Bush critics hoped. The 10-member panel calls the situation the United States faces in Iraq "grave and deteriorating"-no news there-and lists 79 ways to improve it. Key among those is increasing the number of U.S. combat forces embedded with Iraqi units, a proposal already underway.
While focus will be on the fix-it portion of the report, its assessment of the ground situation should face scrutiny. Panel members spent four days in Baghdad, and only one member of the group traveled outside the tightly controlled U.S. Green Zone. Yet the ISG report asserts: "Al Qaeda is responsible for a small portion of the violence in Iraq," counting 1,300 foreign fighters who "play a supporting role," while numbering the Shiite army of Moqtada al-Sadr at 60,000 who allegedly represent a larger threat. That assessment could drive a wedge between the Bush administration and the Shiite-led government at a time when shoring up its duly elected leaders is also essential to achieving stability.
Like the ISG report, a report issued Nov. 27 by retired Gen. Anthony Zinni is critical of the Pentagon's strategy to "secure, hold, and build" but states bluntly, "More troops are needed." Zinni suggests "a short-term increase in force if the increase would provide the security momentum to jump-start other programs."
The Senate voted Dec. 6 to confirm Robert Gates as defense secretary, with Democrats and Republicans portraying him as the man who will help overhaul Iraq policy.
The 95-2 vote was a needed victory for Bush, who named Gates to replace Donald H. Rumsfeld a day after voters gave Democrats control of Congress. Even so, much of Gates' support stemmed from his pledges to consider new options in Iraq.
President Bush accepted the Dec. 4 resignation of U.S. ambassador to the UN John Bolton with candor: "I accepted. I'm not happy about it. I think he deserved to be confirmed." Bolton made progress on UN reform and pushed the Security Council to take action against Iran's nuclear program and Sudan's human-rights abuses, but in the end he could not overcome opposition in the U.S. Senate to secure more than a one-year recess appointment, which expires next month.
Over 50,000 Midwesterners remained without power a week after an ice and snow storm covered the region and accounted for at least 18 deaths. High winds Dec. 7 plunged some back into the dark.
A "shoot money out the door" approach to federal disaster relief has led to over $1 billion in Hurricane Katrina aid being lost to waste and fraud. At a Senate hearing last week congressional investigators outlined instances of misspending by FEMA, including rental assistance to people who were already living in free trailers, payments to thousands of people who claimed the same property damage from both Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and relief to ineligible foreign students. Investigator Gregory Kutz said it is unlikely that FEMA would be able to recoup much of the money: "Absent effective fraud prevention, once money is improperly disbursed, the government can only hope to collect pennies on the dollar."
Taco Bell decided last week to pull all green onions from its food as investigators zeroed in on non-meat ingredients as the cause of an E. coli outbreak in at least three states-New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Officials from the fast-food giant said an independent lab found the bacterium, which has sickened at least 46 people, in three samples of green onions. The most serious infection involved an 11-year-old boy who last week remained in stable condition with kidney damage. All 15 Taco Bell restaurants in the Philadelphia area closed temporarily on Dec. 6, as did two on New York's Long Island.