WASHINGTON—Bucking public opinion and advice from the blue-ribbon Iraq Study Group, President Bush appears poised to order significantly more U.S. combat troops to Iraq as part of his new plan to reverse the deteriorating course of the war.
A "surge" of 20,000 to 30,000 combat troops would in essence be a last-ditch effort to avoid defeat by securing Baghdad and tamping down sectarian violence, allowing reconstruction to commence.
It's a risky tactic.
Critics, including many retired high-ranking Army officers, say more troops aren't the answer. Other military experts say more forces will help only if the deployment is coupled with a political plan that forces compromises by Iraq's warring Shiite and Sunni Muslims, compromises they've long been unwilling to make.
Proponents acknowledge that to be workable, a troop increase would have to be significant—five or more full combat brigades, each with 5,000 troops—and sustained for as much as 18 months, most of the rest of Bush's presidency.
In weighing more troops for Iraq, Bush is at one of the most difficult junctures of his presidency.
There are few other good options besides a painful U.S. withdrawal. But a deeper commitment to Iraq risks putting U.S. national security on a course that could backfire and weaken America's military.
"You better make sure your timing is right," Gen. James Conway, the commandant of the Marine Corps, said recently. "Because if you commit the reserve for something other than a decisive win or to stave off defeat, then you have essentially shot your bolt."
Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., the incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Tuesday that he'd oppose any troop increase.
Bush had been expected to outline his plan the first week in January but has put it off until mid-January, two State Department officials said Thursday. They requested anonymity because no announcements have been made.
Bush met with his top advisers Thursday at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, among them Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He said afterward that he was making "good progress" on a new plan.
Backers of the surge plan argue that success in Iraq is still possible. Bush appears inclined to agree.
"The emerging Bush administration strategy for Iraq is to provide a temporary increase in the troop level to stabilize the capital of Baghdad, which the administration views as the center of gravity for the whole Iraq campaign," said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute, an independent research group.
Precisely what mission the extra troops would have is being debated inside and outside the military. Some officers want the troops to speed the training of Iraqi forces; others, to pacify Baghdad.
Just weeks ago, two top Army officers publicly expressed skepticism about sending more soldiers to Iraq. But in recent days, senior military officers appear to have been swayed, insisting only that the extra forces have a carefully defined mission.
"Surging troops makes sense only if we're going to change the strategy," said retired Marine Col. Francis J. "Bing" West, who's spent considerable time in Iraq.
West said U.S. forces must be allowed to go on the offensive against Shiite militias, something that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, who has close ties to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, has prevented them from doing. The vast Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City in Baghdad, home to Sadr's militia, shouldn't be off limits, he said.
But attacks on Sadr and his forces could provoke a violent backlash.
In Baghdad, where the discovery of 50 bodies a day isn't unusual and the sound of car bombs is now routine, many doubt that Bush's plan will differ from those before it, all of which failed to stop a steady rise in violence.
Amer Hasan Fayadh, a Baghdad University political science professor, said more U.S. troops might calm the country temporarily but that it was up to the Iraqi government to create a sustainable peace.
"The problem in Iraq is political, not military," Fayadh said. "We can depend on the Americans for two to three months, but the government must purify the army and the police from the bad people, the militias and the gangs." He referred to the widespread infiltration of Iraq's security forces by Shiite militias and death squads.
Two attempts last summer to stabilize Baghdad by sending in more troops failed. The increased U.S. presence led to a brief drop in violence, but as soon as the troops left the neighborhoods where they'd deployed, the violence skyrocketed.
One plan that Bush has been briefed on was produced by scholars at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative policy-research center. It advocates 25,000 more combat forces in Baghdad, more than doubling the number there, and another 7,000 or so in volatile Anbar province.
To support the combat troops, thousands more support personnel would be needed.
Frederick W. Kagan, a military historian who co-authored the plan, said the idea was to change strategy and make protecting Baghdad's population the No. 1 goal. As violence decreases, American-trained Iraqi forces will be better able to handle it. The plan acknowledges the risk of higher U.S. casualties in the short term.
To those who say the priority should be to train Iraqi security forces, as Bush himself has said previously, Kagan replied: "We simply can't train the Iraqis fast enough to get the violence under control."
Kagan acknowledged that the proposal, which involves accelerating the deployment of four Army brigades, would further strain the military. But he argued that the military would be wounded far more by an ignominious retreat from Iraq, followed by sectarian revenge killings.
"On balance, to me it seems worth the risk," he said.
But retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey said dispatching more U.S. soldiers to Baghdad would do nothing to affect Iraq's sectarian warfare, the core of the problem.
Bush should ask Congress for $10 billion annually for five years to promote economic reconstruction, and speed weaponry to the underequipped Iraqi army, he said.
Instead, McCaffrey said, the White House appears to be considering sending the equivalent of one and two-thirds divisions into the vast city of Baghdad, which he called "a giant warren's nest of Arabs trying to murder each other with 120 (mm) mortars."
"We may be—I hope not—on the verge of actually worsening the situation," he said.
(Youssef reported from Baghdad, Iraq. McClatchy correspondent Renee Schoof in Washington contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.