WASHINGTON — The leading advocates of an increase in U.S. forces in Iraq warned President Bush on Friday that any buildup lasting less than 18 months was doomed to fail, and urged the White House to avoid compromises that would scale back the plan.
The hard line taken by such backers as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and retired Army Gen. Jack Keane comes as the Bush administration continues to debate the size and the scope of an expected troop increase. White House spokesman Tony Snow said Bush had "not entirely" made up his mind, even as Bush reorganized top war advisors and began meeting with key members of Congress in advance of a major address next week.
Bush faces growing unease about an extended buildup among some congressional Republicans, who are concerned that it could stretch into the 2008 election season and doom their reelection chances. About five to 10 such Republicans are in the Senate, according to GOP aides, and are expected to push for time limits or firm conditions in return for backing the increase.
"For any kind of a surge, they would have to show that the surge itself was limited," said one senior Republican leadership aide, speaking on condition of anonymity. "It would have to be six months or a year, tops."
A strategy advocated by McCain and Keane, who has advised Bush on Iraq policy, calls for about 30,000 additional troops who would remain in Iraq from 18 months to two years. About 140,000 U.S. troops are now in Iraq.
The proposal has heavily influenced administration thinking, and it has strong advocates within the Pentagon and White House, setting up tension between those advocating a broad troop buildup and those supporting a more limited increase.
"The worst of all worlds would be a short, small surge of U.S. forces," McCain said at a forum on the final version of the plan, developed by Keane and Frederick Kagan, a military analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank. "This troop surge [must be] significant and sustained; otherwise, don't do it."
Advocates of the plan say a large, sustained increase is needed to hold and rebuild pacified Baghdad neighborhoods, where sectarian violence resurges once overstretched U.S. troops move on to other parts of the capital. A short-term or limited troop increase would allow insurgents and sectarian death squads to wait out the U.S. offensive, advocates argue.
"The enemy always expects us to surge and leave," said Kagan, a former faculty member at the U.S. Military Academy. "If we surge for three or six months and then pull our forces back, the enemy will be right there waiting."
But a more substantial buildup appears to be running into opposition from some within the president's own party. The senior Republican leadership aide said that GOP skeptics in the Senate either opposed or had significant reservations about a troop increase.
"We have people on all sides of this. We're all over the map," the aide said.
Only three of those Republican skeptics have gone public -- Sens. Gordon H. Smith of Oregon, Norm Coleman of Minnesota and John E. Sununu of New Hampshire. All three represent states with a large Democratic electorate and are expected to seek reelection in 2008.
Some Republicans fear the buildup will be seen as an escalation of the current policy.
"Some are calling this 'staying the course super-sized,' " said a senior staffer for a skeptical Republican moderate.
McCain said he thought Republican fence-sitters would rally around the president once the plan was announced, which could be as soon as Wednesday.
"Most of my Republican colleagues are waiting to hear the president," McCain said. "I think you'll see, at the end of the day, most Republicans will support the president's proposal."
Congress' new Democratic leadership came out forcefully Friday against any increase in troops, calling on Bush in a letter to reject calls for escalation, arguing it would allow the Iraqi government to delay taking over responsibility for its own security.
The letter, signed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), said their views were shared by senior military leaders, and the two warned that an increase could overstretch U.S. ground forces.
"We're willing to work with the president on a new way forward, but the surge is not the way forward," Reid said at a news conference. "The president said he was going to listen to his commanders, but if he listens to his commanders he can't do this. I know he's shuffling some of them out; I've been told it's because they're not telling them what he wants to hear."
Other leading Democrats, however, appeared to be more open to the proposal.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who backs plans to gradually withdraw troops from Iraq, said he could support an increase in troops as long as the Iraqi government first took concrete steps toward achieving political reconciliation within the country.