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Bush aides lay groundwork for Iraq surge

January 07, 2007|Doyle McManus and Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Two months ago, the nation's voters handed both houses of Congress to the Democrats in an election that reflected deep discontent with the war in Iraq.

This week, President Bush is responding to voters' message -- by preparing to escalate the U.S. military commitment in Iraq with a "surge" that would add thousands of troops.

That might sound paradoxical, but aides say Bush's willingness to send more troops makes sense based on two beliefs that have long guided his war strategy. The first is that the price of leaving Iraq would be greater than the cost of staying. The second is that the public will accept the burdens of war if convinced that success is still possible.

"Is this a war, or is it not a war?" one official asked, previewing an argument the president is likely to make. "If it is, you have to be willing to sacrifice.... Americans are willing to do that as long as we have a clear strategy that offers a chance of success."

The details of the administration's surge plan haven't been disclosed, and officials say some details are still being ironed out. Bush is expected to unveil the plan in a nationally broadcast speech this week, probably Wednesday evening.

But even before the plan's announcement, Bush aides -- speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid stepping on his lines -- have been describing his thinking and trying out talking points.

Their summary: Bush believes that the United States still has a chance to stop Iraq from descending into civil war -- and, on the other side of the equation, that the consequences of withdrawal would be disastrous. He thinks it's too early to turn primary responsibility for security in Baghdad over to Iraqi security forces, whose performance has been disappointing.

That leaves Bush with no easy options. But one choice that would keep the hope of victory alive -- a choice that has growing support in the White House -- is a surge aimed at stopping sectarian violence in Baghdad, coupled with rapid political reforms and a U.S.-funded job program to halt the growth of sectarian militias.

Officials said the job program, intended to employ young men who otherwise might join the militias, could cost as much as $1 billion if Congress approves it. The administration's plan will also include proposals for increased economic aid that would further increase the total bill, they said.

White House officials acknowledge that any surge proposal would meet opposition from critics who say the prospect of success is too low to risk more troops' lives. But the officials say they believe that most members of the public are still willing to hear Bush out and give him another chance to succeed.

"If you look at the polls, immediately leaving Iraq is not actually a popular option," one White House aide said. "Everybody figures that anxiety about the war ... means 'get out.' But public opinion is more complex than that."

If Bush decides to send more troops, he will argue that the deployment is part of a broader change in strategy that offers a new chance of success, aides said.

"A president does have the ability to persuade," one added.

One official involved in the administration's policy discussion described it this way: "There are several strategic options to choose from. Do we cut and leave, and attempt to exit gracefully? Do we adjust the current strategy and be patient? Do we keep the current strategy without any adjustment? Or do we try to change the dynamic by increasing the troop levels and changing the strategy?

"Given an ample supply of patience on the part of the American people, [the current strategy] would work. However, the president now knows that there's not an ample supply of patience on the part of the American people.... So he has to change the dynamic.... Does he do it by reducing troops and withdrawing, or does he change the mix in a different way?"

If Bush does propose a surge, that will amount to his rejection of two options proposed in recent weeks. Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, opposed an increase in U.S. troops and called for a quicker transfer of responsibility to Iraqi forces. He is to retire in March.

A commission led by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.) called for a strategy similar to Abizaid's and added that most U.S. combat forces should be withdrawn from Iraq by early 2008. Bush has privately dismissed its recommendations as useless.

Aides said that if Bush opted for a surge of troops, it should not surprise anyone who paid attention to his public statements about Iraq.

"Victory in Iraq is achievable," the president told reporters two weeks ago. "It hasn't happened nearly as quickly as I hoped.... A lot of Americans understand the consequences of retreat. Retreat would embolden radicals. It would hurt the credibility of the United States."

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