When the Iraq Study Group was formed in March, few outside the Washington foreign policy community took much notice. The group, made up of former top government officials evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, was being asked to make recommendations on Iraq to a White House that had shown little inclination to accept outside advice. The group's report seemed destined to gather dust on think-tank bookshelves. But interest in the group's findings grew as the situation in Iraq worsened and has heightened since the Democrats, riding a wave of voter anger over the war, inflicted a humbling defeat on the Republicans in this month's congressional elections. The exit of defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, to be replaced by former CIA director Robert Gates - a member of the group - has further fuelled interest. Now, US policymakers and the media are eagerly awaiting the release of the report - scheduled for next month - and the group's chairman, James Baker, has been again thrust into the spotlight. Mr Baker, 76, is a Texas native and has been a friend of the Bush family for decades. He ran the campaign for George Bush Snr's unsuccessful run for the Senate in 1970, as well as Mr Bush's unsuccessful bid for the Republican nomination to run for president in 1980. When Mr Bush became vice-president under Ronald Reagan, Mr Baker was appointed White House chief of staff and later treasury secretary. When Mr Bush was elected president in 1988, he named Mr Baker secretary of state, and Mr Baker oversaw US foreign policy through the collapse of the Soviet Union and the first Gulf war. This connection to the earlier war in Iraq - in particular the decision to not try to overthrow Saddam Hussein and occupy the country - is one of several intriguing sub-plots to Mr Baker's return to prominence. In a recent interview with ABC television, he described how, after leaving office in 1992, he travelled around the US giving speeches and taking questions. 'And the first question I would always get is 'Why didn't you guys take care of Saddam in 1991'?' he said, adding: 'I don't get those questions anymore.' The conventional wisdom in Washington sees Mr Baker's re-emergence as part of a pattern, along with Mr Gates' appointment as secretary of defence. According to this narrative, the top realists of the elder Bush's administration are coming in to salvage the mistakes of the discredited neo-conservatives who dominated the younger Bush's government. But that reading is too simplistic, says Michael O'Hanlon, an expert on military and foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. While Mr Baker may indeed bring a more pragmatic perspective to the table, that is not the reason he was chosen for the panel, he says. 'I doubt very much that Bush thought of this in terms of the neo-con philosophy vs the conservative philosophy,' he said. 'Bush thought 'Baker is smart, independent enough to give me a fresh set of eyes, but loyal enough to me that I will trust his advice and so I could give him more of a role than I would want to give to a critic',' Mr O'Hanlon says. Mr Baker was most recently in the news for another act of loyalty to the Bush family: he was Mr Bush's representative in Florida during the controversial recount in the 2000 presidential election. And although the members of the Iraq Study Group, or ISG, were chosen by Congress, Mr Baker has said he asked Mr Bush whether he wanted him on the commission before he joined. 'I see in this [wanting Mr Baker to be on the commission] a desire to look back to familiar figures,' says James Mann, the author of Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet. 'Baker is a familiar face from the past, someone who has repeatedly been called back to bail out the Bush family, father and son. 'But it's a little more than that. He's particularly skilled at figuring out a deal or compromise.' A deal or compromise is more likely to be the result of the group's work than a dramatically new, effective strategy for Iraq. The commission is largely made up of figures from the US political establishment, many of whom have little international experience, such as former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani and former Supreme Court judge Sandra Day O'Connor. The group has interviewed dozens of Iraqi and American officials, as well as officials from allied and Arab countries. It is charged with taking a 'fresh look' at US strategy in Iraq, in particular at security and political and economic questions. In the months since the panel's creation the situation in Iraq has become worse and cries for change louder. Since September, high-level officers at the Pentagon have been working on their own review of the strategy in Iraq, and Democrats have been arguing for a variety of dramatic changes, from relocating US troops to safer areas like Kuwait and northern Iraq to withdrawing completely. With the Democrats' big victory last week and Mr Rumsfeld's departure, it seems inevitable that there will be change. But if there were any great ideas for stabilising Iraq, they probably would have been tried by now. Nevertheless, in this environment - and with several leaks that suggest the group is highly critical of the current strategy - the ISG's recommendations are eagerly awaited. 'At the time [of the ISG's formation], they may have hoped that the commission would simply give a high-level ratification of their existing policy, but over the past six months, as things in Iraq began to deteriorate, then the hope was not for ratification of what was already there, but maybe they could come up with something new,' Mann says. Mr Baker has already given some hints as to what the group's recommendations might be. 'If we left right now you'd see the biggest civil war you've ever seen and every neighbouring country would be in there doing its own thing - Turkey, Iran, Syria ... and even our friends in the Gulf. So I do not think that's an option,' he said in the ABC interview. He is also against giving significant regional autonomy to the three major ethnic groups in Iraq. 'If we do that it will trigger a huge civil war because there's no way to draw lines between Sunni, Shia and Kurds in the major cities of Baghdad, Kirkuk, Basra and Mosul. How do you draw the boundaries? The minute you say you're going to do that, create three autonomous regions, you're likely to kick off a big civil war,' he said. He has said he favours bringing Iran and Syria into discussions on how to stabilise Iraq. 'I believe in talking to your enemies. I don't believe you restrict your conversation to your friends,' he said. Most observers believe the ISG's recommendations will be more about creating a politically palatable veneer on the limited options that exist. 'You've got a new Democratic Congress, so try to use that to your advantage,' Mr O'Hanlon says, describing what he says is likely to be the recommendation. 'You make one big push in 2007, you tell the Iraqis we have one last push, we'll add American forces, we'll add support of various types, but this is your last opportunity and if things don't start getting better, we're out of here. That wouldn't require brilliant insight into how to manage Iraq as much as common sense.' It is not clear how seriously Mr Bush will take the panel's recommendations, especially now that it seems the group may recommend a dramatic change. Mr Bush has already said he opposes bringing Iran and Syria into negotiations, and this week the White House said it was creating its own internal panel to review its Iraq strategy, a move seen by many as blunting the impact of the ISG by creating a friendlier panel to give him political cover for doing what he wants to do. And, through no fault of the ISG, it may be too little, too late to stop Iraq's collapse. Mr Baker recently warned against outsized expectations for his recommendations. For the US strategy in Iraq, he said, there is no 'magic bullet ... anybody who thinks that somehow we're going to come up with something that is going to totally solve the problem is engaging in wishful thinking.'