Today, Iraq turned a corner. There is a long road ahead before America’s criminal entanglement can be sorted out, but the fact that the Iraq Study Group–the blue-ribbon task force co-chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker–has proposed to end the role of US combat forces in Iraq will irreversibly begin the process of ending the war itself.

Created last spring as a mechanism to force President Bush to reverse course on Iraq, the ISG has succeeded in its central mission, namely, the establishment of a benchmark for a bipartisan accord–in Congress, and among the foreign policy elite–for the withdrawal of American forces in Iraq. By hammering out a consensus among its ten members, the ISG’s report will create unstoppable momentum for “redeployment” of those forces. Its formal report will be released next Wednesday.

Newly empowered Democrats on Capitol Hill, bolstered by an overwhelming electoral mandate on Iraq from the November 7 antiwar vote that swept them into power, will be emboldened by the ISG to exert maximum pressure on the White House for the “phased withdrawal” plan put forward by Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, the incoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Expect that to begin Tuesday, at hearings to confirm Robert Gates, a former member of the Iraq Study Group and a realist with close ties to Baker, as Secretary of Defense.

The Democrats will also scrutinize, line by line, the Pentagon’s Iraq war budget requests, including a $127 billion to $160 billion request to cover the costs of the war through October. And expect the Democrats in both the House and the Senate to have Baker, Hamilton et al. appear at multiple Congressional hearings to explore the ongoing disaster in Iraq and the way out. The Democrats will use all of these hearings to build bridges to Republican centrists like Senator John Warner, the current chair of the Armed Services Committee, and his Senate colleagues Chuck Hagel, Dick Lugar, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins.

Those Republicans, and many others, are desperate to take Iraq off the table as an election issue for 2008. Indeed, the ISG itself was created by the Republicans in Congress, including Warner and Representative Frank Wolf, a Virginia colleague of Warner’s, who were frustrated with the White House’s stubborn insistence on staying the course.

Bush, who even this week continued to pay lip service to the idea of “victory” in Iraq–“We can accept nothing less than victory,” he said in Latvia, closing the NATO meeting there–can no longer hold out against the full array of US public opinion, political pressure from Capitol Hill, realist-minded bureaucrats at the State Department and the CIA, and a vast consensus among the US foreign policy establishment. He will be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the real world–although the finely worded report of the ISG, when it is released December 6, is nearly certain to provide the President with a fig leaf to cover his nakedness as he executes an about-face. Indeed, amid the usual rhetoric from the President, there were signs today that he was opening the door for a change in policy. After meeting the Iraqi prime minister in Amman, Jordan, Bush said that America will stay in Iraq “so long as the [Iraqi] government wants us there,” and he said that the United States is in Iraq “at the request of a sovereign government elected by the [Iraqi] people.”

By emphasizing the power of the Iraqis to ask America to leave, the President is opening the door to what many analysts have long believed is the most efficient, face-saving way for the United States to exit Iraq: by being asked to leave by Iraqis. Just as within the US Congress there is a strong bipartisan majority gathering to support withdrawal, so inside the Iraqi Parliament there is a similar, bipartisan (Sunni and Shiite) coalition in formation. The Iraqi parliamentary opposition to America’s occupation of Iraq, in turn, reflects a majority of perhaps three-quarters of Iraqis, according to recent polls, who support an end to the occupation of their country.

In protest of Bush’s meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, thirty members of Parliament and five ministers associated with cleric and powerbroker Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shiite firebrand, have walked out of the government. According to Sadr representatives, their bloc is attempting to forge an anti-occupation majority in Parliament. “We are endeavoring to form a national front inside Parliament to oppose the occupation,” said a Sadr spokesman today, presumably one that would include the vocal Sunni opposition.

Maliki–as the leaked memo from National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley noted this week–is a dead man walking. Weak, ineffectual and incompetent, he knows his days are numbered. The Sadr defection alone could bring him down. That, in turn, could create space for a broad renegotiation of an Iraqi national compact to supersede the flawed and divisive Constitution that has inflamed sectarian divisions. Meanwhile, in anticipation of the US policy changes, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has called for an international conference to help Iraqi parties reconcile. Such a conference, Annan knows, cannot be successful without the full participation of disenfranchised Sunnis, including the armed factions from the Iraqi nationalist resistance. And, Annan knows, it also cannot succeed without the support of all Iraq’s neighbors, including Iran and Syria. Both Iran and Syria took major steps this week to build ties to Iraq.

The ISG report is certain to call for an international conference, too, and for a closer working relationship with all of Iraq’s six neighbors. Five powerful Senate Democrats, including Levin and incoming Senate majority leader Harry Reid, sent a letter to the White House yesterday calling on Bush to appoint a super-regional Iraq envoy to handle US relations with Iraq, its neighbors and the UN. That, too, is likely to be part of the ISG’s recommendations.

The ISG report is not likely to satisfy the left, the antiwar movement or others who strongly oppose the US presence in Iraq. It will apparently call for a residual US presence in Iraq of tens of thousands of US troops to train Iraqi security forces, and–contrary to what Democrats on the ISG panel wanted–its call for withdrawal of combat forces will carry no deadline, which can allow for stalling and slippage. It will take all of the efforts of antiwar forces, public opinion and Democratic elected officials to press for a faster withdrawal, and to insure that it is carried out as the inevitable crises occur.

It is, however, too late for the 600,000 Iraqis who’ve perished already. And there remains a real, and horrifying possibility–even a likelihood–that the carnage in Iraq will get worse. Many analysts believe that the worst-case scenario could erupt: an all-out civil war pitting Sunnis against Shiites and Arabs and Kurds in Iraq, leading to a regional conflagration that could suck in all of Iraq’s neighbors even against their will. As the United States starts to exit Iraq, leaving behind the wreckage of a once-thriving and prosperous nation victimized by an American war of aggression, it will take the combined good offices of the entire world community to prevent the worst case from becoming reality. And then that world community will have to step in to rebuild Iraq from the ground up. It will be our job, here at home, to hold accountable those US politicians, pundits and government officials responsible for the deaths of so many, for nothing.