WASHINGTON—With violence in Iraq on the rise, the Bush administration faces a tough choice: Rely on Iraq's fledgling army, police and civil defense corps to share some of the burden, or send in more American troops.
Officials speaking at congressional hearings this past week said the administration's strategy is to speed up training and equipping of Iraq's security forces, as well as appointing a new Iraqi military leadership.
But the combat performance of Iraqi forces recently has been lackluster at best, with some units refusing to fight alongside occupying American troops.
Some leading lawmakers already are calling for more U.S. soldiers.
On Thursday, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called on the administration to commit at least a full division of fresh troops—around 20,000 soldiers.
"The fundamental truth," said McCain, a maverick Republican and Vietnam War hero, "is that we face the security task mostly alone."
U.S. troop strength in Iraq was supposed to drop from the current level of 135,000 within the next few weeks, as 20,000 soldiers, mostly with the 1st Armored Division, rotated home. But two weeks ago they were ordered to stay an extra 90 days.
"The administration has a plan for increasing troop levels if circumstances require it, but they really don't want to do that," said Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute, a conservative think tank in Alexandria, Va.
Senior defense officials have refused to say which units could replace the 1st Armored Division if officials decide to keep the number of troops at 135,000. A likely choice is the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, which came home from Iraq last fall and was scheduled to return after this summer.
Lt. Gen. Richard A. Cody, the Army's deputy chief of staff for operations, said recently that the division could be ready to go as early as July.
Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee this past week that the Pentagon is planning to have troops in Iraq through at least 2006. When asked what options were available if more troops were necessary, Myers said the Pentagon "has done a scrub of forces" that could be ready within "the next few weeks to the next couple of months," though he didn't provide any details.
The coalition in Iraq is already fraying. Spain, Honduras and the Dominican Republic have announced the pullout of 1,700 soldiers beginning in the next few weeks. Norway announced Friday that it was pulling its 180 troops out after June 30, when the U.S.-led coalition is scheduled to return sovereignty to the Iraqis. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, during the same hearing this past week, said more countries were unlikely to send their soldiers as long as the fighting continued.
"A lot of people, other than the British, expected to do peacekeeping, not war fighting. They thought they were going in after the hostilities ended," said Lawrence J. Korb, who was the assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration and is now an analyst at the Center for American Progress, a liberal Washington policy research group.
Korb said he believes about 150,000 U.S. soldiers would be needed to stabilize Iraq. Other analysts aren't so sure.
"As of right now, the need to do so is not clear," said Thompson. He said the threats posed by Sunni Muslim insurgents in Fallujah and Shiite Muslim militants loyal to cleric Muqtada al Sadr "require relatively small numbers of U.S. forces to cope with."
Senior Pentagon officials say that current troop levels are adequate to the security task. But many lawmakers, senior and retired military officers and other experts worry that commitments in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere have stretched the military, especially the Army, to the breaking point.
For the first time in nearly three decades, some lawmakers are proposing returning to compulsory military service. The last draft ended in 1973 at the close of the Vietnam War.
On NBC's "Today" show on Wednesday, Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., a member of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, said the war on terrorism could last more than a generation, and the mission "must match the resources." Although Hagel said he wasn't proposing a draft, he said lawmakers should consider some kind of mandatory service for all citizens.
"I do not think, because of the society we have, it is a very wise course of action to take to burden the middle class with the fighting and the dying and allow the sons and daughters of the rich and the privileged to escape," Hagel, a Vietnam War veteran, said.
Last year, Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., a Korean War veteran, and Sen. Fritz Hollings, D-S.C., a World War II veteran, introduced legislation in the House of Representatives and Senate to reinstate the draft, but the measure went nowhere.
On Thursday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said he opposed the idea and that he didn't know of anyone in the executive branch of the government who supported it.
Many senior military officers are also opposed to compulsory service, saying that a volunteer military produces better soldiers. But many sociologists who have studied the military say Hagel's point is a valid one.
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.