BAGHDAD, Iraq—In his first wide-ranging interview, the No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq conceded Sunday that a military "surge" escalation would not be enough to rescue Iraq, advocating economic and political changes as well, as top Democratic lawmakers in Washington stiffened their opposition to any escalation of U.S. troop strength.
Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno said he believed that a combination of jobs, provincial elections, anti-militia legislation and stronger Iraqi security forces could stop the nation's plunge toward all-out civil war. Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, his predecessor, spelled out the same approach before his departure one month ago.
By echoing his predecessor, Odierno's comments raised concerns in both Washington and Iraq that the U.S. war effort is exhausting old tactics that haven't worked. Indeed, many Iraqis do not trust that a new Baghdad security plan can change their circumstances because the U.S. and Iraqi government have touted at least five such plans before, all of which failed to stop the violence.
The commander's statements came days before President Bush is to announce a new course for U.S. policy in Iraq, probably Wednesday. It's expected to include an escalation "surge" of between 9,000 and 30,000 U.S. troops, an increase in civilian advisers to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government and perhaps $1 billion in new aid for reconstruction efforts.
In Washington Sunday, top Democratic lawmakers emphasized that they oppose any plan to escalate U.S. troop strength in Iraq, but made clear that they are not ready to cut off funds for troops there now. However, Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said that Congress would scrutinize any Bush request to fund an escalated U.S. presence in Iraq.
"The American people and the Congress support those troops. We will not abandon them. But if the president wants to add to this mission, he is going to have to justify it. And this is new for him, because up until now, the Republican Congress has given him a blank check with no oversight, no standards, no conditions, and we've gotten into this situation which is a war without end, which the American people have rejected," Pelosi said on CBS' "Face the Nation."
On Friday, Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., sent Bush a public letter opposing any increase in U.S. troops in Iraq and calling for a phased redeployment of U.S. troops out of Iraq starting in four to six months.
Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Sunday that Bush's expected plan to escalate U.S. troop strength in Iraq "is a prescription for another tragedy." Biden also announced that he will seek the presidency in 2008.
"There is now a civil war. You need a political solution," said Biden, speaking on NBC's "Meet the Press." His committee plans extensive hearings on Iraq in coming weeks.
Taking the opposite view was Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"I support a surge with a purpose—co-joining with the Iraqi political and military leadership to control this country," Graham said, also on "Meet the Press." "We cannot let this country go into the abyss.
"Now is the last chance, and the only chance, to get this right."
Graham said many Republican lawmakers are prepared to back Bush's call for an escalation of U.S. forces in Iraq.
In Baghdad, Odierno said he proposed several approaches to Defense Secretary Robert Gates during his visit here last month, including a surge.
"What I will tell you is when Secretary Gates was here with General (Peter) Pace, we offered several different courses of action. Some included surge of troops, some included a surge in economic capabilities." Others, he said, included boosting other Iraqi capabilities in the treasury, justice, and rule of law fields, "and some didn't include a troop surge."
Odierno arrived in Baghdad less than a month ago, replacing Chiarelli. During his tenure, Chiarelli repeatedly said that if more Iraqis had jobs, fewer would join a rogue group or shoot at American soldiers. The unemployment rate here is at least 25 percent, government officials estimate.
Both commanders said they believed that Iraqi forces should take the lead in enforcing security, while conceding that, while they are improving, Iraqis have faltered when given the lead. Some forces have been overtly sectarian. Others lost control of their communities, forcing U.S. troops to intervene. Both commanders said that U.S. troops should be on the periphery of areas handed over to Iraqi forces in case violence erupts.
Both said that U.S. forces must tackle not only Sunni insurgents but Shiite militias—yet both stopped short of advocating that U.S. forces go after firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who leads Iraq's largest militia, the Mahdi Army, and supports the Iraqi government.
"I'm not sure we take him down," Odierno said. "There are some extreme elements (of the Mahdi Army) ... and we will go after them. I will allow the government to decide whether (Sadr) is part of it or not. He is currently working within the political system."
Both Odierno and Chiarelli said that the military could not do everything and that Iraq needs a political solution. Both also said that everyone should be patient with Iraq's nascent government, noting that it has been in power less than a year.
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.