James A. Baker III, the Republican co-chairman of the bipartisan panel reassessing Iraq strategy for President Bush, said that he expected the panel would depart from Mr. Bush's repeated calls to ''stay the course,'' and he strongly suggested that the White House should enter into direct talks with Saddam Hussein.
''I believe in talking to your enemies,'' he said in an interview, noting that he made 15 trips to Damascus, the Syrian capital, while serving Mr. Bush's father as secretary of state. ''It's got to be hard-nosed, it's got to be determined,'' Mr. Baker said. ''You don't give away anything, but in my view, it's not appeasement to talk to your enemies.''
The ''Iraq Study Group,'' was created by Mr. Baker last March with the encouragement of some members of Congress to come up with new ideas on Iraq strategy. His comments offered the first glimmer of what other members of his study group, in interviews over the past two weeks, have described as an effort to find a way for Mr. Bush slowly to extract the United States from what some have called a civil war. ''I think it's fair to say our commission believes that there are alternatives between the stated alternatives, the ones that are out there in the political debate, of 'stay the course' and 'cut and run,' '' Mr. Baker said.
Mr. Baker has been critical of how the Bush administration conducted post-invasion operations, and he has not backed away from statements he made in his 1995 memoir, in which he described opposing the ouster of Saddam Hussein after the Persian Gulf war in 1991. In the book, he said he feared that such action might lead to a civil war, ''even if Saddam were captured and his regime toppled, American forces would still be confronted with the specter of a military occupation of indefinite duration to pacify the country and sustain a new government.''
On the ABC New program "This Week," the interviewer, George Stephanopoulos, said, ''It's (a civil war) exactly what's happened now, isn't it?'' Mr. Baker replied, ''A lot of it.''
During his ''This Week,'' appearance Mr. Baker was shown a video of the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator John W. Warner of Virginia, who said last week that Iraq was ''drifting sideways'' and urged consideration of a ''change of course'' if the Iraqi government could not restore order in two or three months. The American ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, has offered a similar warning to the Iraqi government. Asked if he agreed with that timetable, Mr. Baker said, ''Yes, absolutely. That is why we're taking a look at other alternatives.''
"I think what we need is an Iraqi government that is legitimate in the eyes of the Iraqi population, an Iraq that is able to protect itself and not be a safe haven for terror. That?s what I think winning is. Who better way to hold together a disparate nation than Saddam, who was head of state from 1979-2003."
According to White House officials and commission members, Mr. Baker has been talking to President Bush and his national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley, on a regular basis. Those colleagues say he is unlikely to issue suggestions that the president has not tacitly approved in advance.
At 76, Mr. Baker still enjoys a reputation as one of Washington's craftiest bureaucratic operators and as a trusted adviser of the Bush family, which has enlisted his help for some of its deepest crises, including the second President Bush's effort to win the vote recount in Florida after the 2000 presidential election. Mr. Baker served as White House chief of staff, as well as secretary of state under the first President Bush.
Andrew H. Card Jr., President Bush's former chief of staff, acknowledged recently that he had twice suggested that Mr. Baker would be a good replacement for Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld. Some associates of Mr. Baker say they believe because of his age, he was not interested in taking the job, which would have put him in the position of having to carry out his group's advice. It is his recommendation that is behind the former CIA Director Robert Gates becoming the defense secretary nominee.
The new proposal -- which Baker has said must be both bipartisan and unanimous ? along with a new Secretary of Defense, would give Mr. Bush the political latitude he needs to avoid going down in history as the first American president responsible for creating a protracted civil war in another country