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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ: DEBATE OVER TROOP LEVELS

Larger U.S. effort in Iraq is proposed

More troops and aid, and an anti-Sadr offensive, offer the best odds for victory, Pentagon planners say.

December 13, 2006|Julian E. Barnes | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — As President Bush weighs new policy options for Iraq, strong support has coalesced in the Pentagon behind a military plan to "double down" in the country with a substantial buildup in American troops, an increase in industrial aid and a major combat offensive against Muqtada Sadr, the radical Shiite leader impeding development of the Iraqi government.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff will present their assessment and recommendations to Bush at the Pentagon today. Military officials, including some advising the chiefs, have argued that an intensified effort may be the only way to get the counterinsurgency strategy right and provide a chance for victory.

The approach overlaps somewhat a course promoted by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz). But the Pentagon proposals add several features, including the confrontation with Sadr, a possible renewed offensive in the Sunni stronghold of Al Anbar province, a large Iraqi jobs program and a proposal for a long-term increase in the size of the military.

Such an option would appear to satisfy Bush's demand for a strategy focused on victory rather than disengagement. It would disregard key recommendations and warnings of the Iraq Study Group, however, and provide little comfort for those fearful of a long, open-ended U.S. commitment in the country. Only 12% of Americans support a troop increase, whereas 52% prefer a fixed timetable for withdrawal, a Los Angeles Times/ Bloomberg poll has found.

"I think it is worth trying," a defense official said. "But you can't have the rhetoric without the resources. This is a double down" -- the gambling term for upping a bet.

Such a proposal, military officials and experts caution, would be a gamble. Any chance of success probably would require major changes in the Iraqi government, they said. U.S. Embassy officials would have to help usher into power a new coalition in Baghdad that was willing to confront the militias. And the strategy also would require more U.S. spending to increase the size of the U.S. military and for an Iraqi jobs program.

Defense officials interviewed for this article requested anonymity because the deliberations over the Pentagon's recommendations were continuing and had not been made public.

"You are dealing with an inherently difficult undertaking," said Stephen Biddle, a military analyst called to the White House this week to advise Bush. "That doesn't mean we should withdraw. But no one should go into this thinking if we double the size of the military, the result will be victory. Maybe, but maybe not. You are buying the opportunity to enter a lottery."

The wild card in the Pentagon planning is Robert M. Gates, due to be sworn in Monday as Defense secretary. Gates had breakfast Tuesday with Bush and will participate, along with outgoing Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, in today's meetings.

Bush is collecting recommendations from his administration this week as he crafts his strategy for Iraq. But some defense officials say Gates may seek more time to weigh other options. And before endorsing an increase in combat forces, Gates may press commanders in Iraq for assurances that U.S. forces can hold off an escalation of the sectarian civil war.

"This is the big moment," said the defense official. "It is enormously important for the new secretary of Defense to revisit what the overall objective is ... and what is needed to achieve that."

Some military officers believe that Iraq has become a test of wills, and that the U.S. needs to show insurgents and sectarian militias that it is willing to stay and fight. "I've come to the realization we need to go in, in a big way," said an Army officer. "You have to have an increase in troops.... We have to convince the enemy we are serious and we are coming in harder."

The size of the troop increase the Pentagon will recommend is unclear. One officer suggested an increase of about 40,000 forces would be required, but other officials said such a number was unrealistic. There are about 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.

The administration has spent about $495 billion for Iraq and terrorism-related efforts since 2001, including $70 billion so far in fiscal 2007. It is planning to request as much as an additional $150 billion to fund the war effort through the rest the budget year.

The problem with any sort of surge is that it would require an eventual drop-off in 2008, unless the president was willing to take the politically unpopular move of remobilizing the National Guard and sending reserve combat units back to Iraq.

But military officials are taking a close look at a proposal advanced by Frederick W. Kagan, a former West Point Military Academy historian, to combine a surge with a quick buildup of the Marines and the Army. That could allow new units to take the place of the brigades sent to Iraq to augment the current force.

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