WASHINGTON—Sending 30,000 or more additional American troops to Iraq probably wouldn't stop the worsening violence, Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., the incoming chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said Tuesday.
"I don't think it will change a thing," Skelton said. "It could actually exacerbate the situation even further."
President Bush is weighing the option. His administration is debating whether a large increase in American troops, for perhaps six months or more, could quell the rising violence and give the Iraqi government time to strengthen its ability to take over responsibility for security.
Opponents of the idea warn that militants could fade away and wait out the temporarily strengthened U.S. occupation or rise to the challenge and send American casualties even higher.
Skelton cautioned that a large troop increase in Iraq would put a heavier burden on the Army and Marine Corps when they're already strained.
"I think we have some real challenges in Iraq, and I'm really concerned about it," Skelton said at a news conference. He said it was unclear what the mission of new forces would be and that adding soldiers and Marines might mean more targets for the enemy.
The time for bigger forces was in 2003, after the U.S.-led invasion, when more troops were needed to secure the country, Skelton said. "If we had done that, I don't think we would be in the situation we are in today."
White House spokesman Tony Snow said Tuesday that an increase of troops in Iraq was under consideration but that no decision had been made. The White House has said Bush will announce a new plan for Iraq in January.
Robert Gates, the new defense secretary, plans to go to Iraq to get an assessment from military leaders about the next steps. Gates said Monday at his swearing-in ceremony that failure in Iraq "would be a calamity that would haunt our nation, impair our credibility and endanger Americans for decades to come."
Skelton said he was invited to a meeting with President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney last week and that he'd urged them to reduce American forces in Iraq immediately to signal to the Iraqi government that it must take responsibility.
Skelton noted that a new quarterly report from the Pentagon, released Monday, concluded that violence in Iraq is at an all-time high and attacks by Shiite Muslim militants have become the greatest threat in Baghdad. The rise in violence came despite an increase in American forces in Baghdad beginning last summer.
"I'm not real optimistic about Iraq. I've said that. I told the president that personally," Skelton said, adding that Bush listened but didn't respond.
Longer term, Skelton said, one priority for his committee will be to strengthen the military to make sure it has the people and equipment it needs to meet future challenges.
"You are stretching and straining these young people, and if you want a strong, viable military, you're going to have to make it possible for them to have predictable lives and train them up fully," he said.
A draft won't be necessary, he added.
"You don't need hundreds of thousands more to join the military. You just need a steady recruitment that we seem to be doing well today," he said. People join largely out of patriotism, and also because of bonuses, "and some just like the military life," he said.
President Bush said he wanted to increase long-term troop strength in the Army and Marines too. His comments came in an interview that The Washington Post posted Tuesday evening on its Web site.
Skelton outlined these priorities for his committee:
_Iraq oversight, with a focus on the mission of U.S. forces, training Iraqi forces and the status of reconstruction.
_Afghanistan, particularly the flow of terrorists into the country from Pakistan and opium poppy production.
_The war on terrorism. The committee will try to determine whether the military services are giving it the right priority and cooperating with other government agencies.
_Preventing the spread of nuclear materials and technology.
_Ensuring that the U.S. military can meet threats from insurgencies and the conventional forces of any enemies.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.