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Officials debate a sustained `surge'

Administration and military leaders haven't decided if progress in Iraq will end or extend the troop buildup.

July 21, 2007|Peter Spiegel | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — In Congress, a passionate debate over the war in Iraq ended abruptly in legislative deadlock this week, leaving President Bush free to continue his military buildup into September. But inside the administration, a less visible but no less passionate debate is quietly underway -- over whether the "surge" should continue even longer.

Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the overall commander in Iraq, is expected to present Bush with several options in a key September report, along with an analysis of where each path might lead.

But senior administration officials are far from unified on the question of whether progress over the summer should lead to an extension of the surge -- or to an opportunity to declare victory and end the increase in forces.

Evidence is mounting that military commanders favor a continuation of the buildup, which now has the troop level at 158,000, through next spring. On Friday, two senior military commanders in Iraq indicated that efforts to stabilize their provinces will stretch well beyond September.

"I worry about this talk about reducing or terminating the surge," one of the officers, Army Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, commander of U.S. troops to the south of Baghdad, said in an interview with the Associated Press. "It's going to take through [this] summer, into the fall, to defeat the extremists in my battle space, and it's going to take me into next spring and summer to generate this sustained security presence."

But support for continuing the troop buildup into next year is not universal within the administration. Most significantly, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates repeatedly has said that he would like to see the beginning of a drawdown before year's end, and he has signaled that the September report could be used as a point to begin withdrawals.

Though the administration was able to quell rebellious Republicans on Capitol Hill this week, the job will probably be more difficult in September. That's when leading GOP moderates -- including Sens. John W. Warner of Virginia and Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, two key voices on national security matters -- indicated they would be more receptive to changes in strategy.

The White House has signaled it is well aware of the sensitivities. White House spokesman Tony Snow insisted that Lynch's comments -- along with similar assessments from Marine Maj. Gen. Walter E. Gaskin, commander of U.S. forces in western Al Anbar province, and from the day-to-day commander in Iraq, Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno -- were not efforts to reach beyond the September report.

"This is not an attempt to buy more time," Snow said at his daily White House briefing. "The generals obviously are interested in continuing, because they think that they've got successful and important operations, but they also realize that there are challenges."

Odierno raised eyebrows Thursday by suggesting he may need until November to assess the long-term prospects of the troop buildup. He clarified his remarks 24 hours later, saying he recognized the importance of the September report. But he repeated his argument that November would be a better time to assess the situation.

"There is no intention to push our reporting requirement beyond September," Odierno said in a statement released by his headquarters in Baghdad. "My reference to November was simply suggesting that as we go forward beyond September, we will gain more understanding of trends."

Much of the administration's ability to sustain the surge beyond September depends on keeping moderate Senate Republicans on board. Administration officials believe they retain a solid core of public and congressional support, and will be able to demonstrate progress in Iraq by the time Petraeus' report is completed.

Administration and military officials believe that by mid-September, Baghdad will be more stable, local cooperation will improve and the Iraqi government will take steps toward political reconciliation.

Polls show growing unhappiness among the American public with the Iraq war. But some administration officials believe those numbers mask the fact that the public does not want to suffer a defeat in Iraq and thus opposes withdrawal until the situation is stabilized.

Administration officials can point to the recent votes on Capitol Hill for evidence. When the House voted on an amendment to force troop withdrawals, four Republicans defected to vote for the amendment, and 10 Democrats voted against it. In the Senate, though, the risk of Republican defection continues to rise.

At the same time, administration officials have noted that the surge was never intended to continue indefinitely, and military officials have warned that it will be much tougher to maintain 20 brigades in Iraq after next spring without unpopular new troop extensions.

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