WASHINGTON — As his troops regrouped after the deadliest week since the fall of Baghdad, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq acknowledged Monday what many critics had been saying for months: The American-led force needs more troops.
An expected deployment of thousands more troops for duty in Iraq answers congressional calls for backup and comes as administration officials work to prevent allies from following Spain's planned withdrawal of its forces.
But the request Monday also revealed the Pentagon's lack of options for finding reinforcements. Army Gen. John Abizaid, head of the Central Command, called Iraqi security forces a "great disappointment." As a result, most of the new troops are almost certain to come from the thinly stretched U.S. Army.
The request for more soldiers is likely to bolster critics who have accused the president's team of underestimating the amount of American blood and money needed to successfully occupy Iraq.
Abizaid asked the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the equivalent of two brigades, or 7,000 to 10,000 troops -- "if not more." The request was made less than a week after military officials began extending the one-year tours of an unspecified number of the roughly 20,000 troops who were preparing to leave Iraq.
U.S. officials had hoped to draw the occupation force down to 110,000 this spring as the coalition prepares to transfer authority to a still-unnamed interim Iraqi government on June 30.
Instead, the Pentagon is planning to have as many as 140,000 American troops in Iraq if the new units arrive soon or 120,000 if the soldiers now pulling extended duty are allowed to leave within several months, defense officials said.
Yet those numbers could change drastically, Pentagon officials said privately. Either the Joint Chiefs or Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld could substantially alter Abizaid's request.
"You could see that number halve -- or even double," one official said.
Abizaid has a reputation within the Pentagon as a straight shooter, but some observers were betting on further increases.
"If Abizaid says he needs two brigades, one can be certain that that's the very minimum he needs, given the reluctance by him and other commanders to acknowledge that they need any more troops at all," said former ambassador James Dobbins, who supervised peacekeeping operations in Kosovo, Bosnia, Haiti and Somalia and now works for the Rand Corp.
U.S. military strategists had planned to replace forces gradually -- and replace them with Iraqis. But during attacks by Shiite Muslim militias in Najaf, Nasiriya and Baghdad and by Sunni fighters in Fallouja and Ramadi, Iraqi forces often failed and in some cases defected, Abizaid told reporters at the Pentagon via teleconference.
Although some Iraqi Civil Defense Corps and police units performed well in Fallouja and elsewhere, he said, "clearly we know that some of the police did not stay with their post and that in some cases ... there were some defections. I think that these numbers are not large, but they are troubling to us. And clearly, we've got to work on the Iraqi security forces."
Some critics said adding troops would reverse the model outlined by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell when he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: Enter conflicts with overwhelming force and then slowly draw down.
The U.S. force in Iraq peaked at roughly 155,000 during the invasion last year. Despite the addition of 200,000 Iraqi police, army and other security forces since then, U.S. troop strength has dropped by only 25,000.
Current and former Army officials have noted that when then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric K. Shinseki warned Congress before the war that 225,000 U.S. troops then poised for attack around the Persian Gulf would be needed for years, Pentagon officials called his estimate wildly inaccurate.
"This is what Shinseki was talking about. This is what everybody's been talking about," retired Maj. Gen. William Nash said. "The failure to do it right at the beginning means that we're going to have to do it at the end with a lot of deaths and a lot of trouble and it's going to be much harder now. The insurgents are building momentum."
On Capitol Hill, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and a chorus of Democrats and Republicans have pushed for more troops.
But there are few easy options for bringing them in. The number of non-U.S. troops, currently 24,000, is unlikely to rise soon. Like Spain, some NATO members are waiting for a possible new U.N. Security Council resolution on Iraq before committing troops. They also want to complete more of their mission in Afghanistan.
From the Pentagon's point of view, the recent performance of Iraqi troops is forcing a reassessment of those forces as options.
That leaves the U.S. Army, which has nearly 1 million soldiers overall, including National Guard and reserve troops. But many have already been put on active duty, and lengthy tours strain the system by putting retention and recruitment at risk.