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by Howard LaFranchi
Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2006 at 4:42 PM
Bush favors temporary rise in GIs in Iraq
Christian Science Monitor
Nov. 20, 2006 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON - It's being dubbed by some as the "last big push" option, and it appears increasingly to be what President Bush favors on Iraq.
Despite growing expectations of a troop withdrawal from Iraq in the wake of Democratic gains in Congress, the White House appears to be leaning in a different direction: at least a temporary rise in U.S. troop levels.
The numbers would not be huge, perhaps 20,000 on top of the 144,000 U.S. soldiers there. But the idea would be to stabilize Baghdad, a priority that has proved dishearteningly elusive since September, and to allow for a major diplomatic push aimed at drawing Iraq's neighbors into resolving the spiraling violence.
Implicit in the perspective of the officials and experts who see this as a kind of military "Hail Mary" pass is the assumption that a phased reduction of U.S. troops would begin next fall, whether or not Iraq had been brought back from the brink of all-out civil war.
Some experts who have favored increasing the number of U.S. troops in the past say conditions have deteriorated to such a degree that before any steps are taken, the United States must first differentiate between a knee-jerk act of desperation and something that can really improve the situation in Iraq.
"Before we go to even 20,000 more troops, we'd better determine how we can sustain these numbers and whether or not it can make any difference in getting the Iraqi government to do what has to be done," said Harlan Ullman, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Speculation over a temporary surge in troops has been fueled in part by sources close to administration deliberations on Iraq strategy. A troop increase has been one option on the table as the administration, faced with a growing consensus that the current approach in Iraq is not working, has weighed new directions.
The Iraq Study Group, a congressionally appointed commission co-chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker III and former Democratic congressional leader Lee Hamilton, looks favorably on the troop-spike option, according to experts who have worked with the commission.
This inclination is especially true, observers say, if a troop increase were carried out in tandem with a major diplomatic push to enlist Iraq's neighbors in helping to stabilize the country and assist in its reconstruction.
But the most explicit evidence that the White House may be moving in this direction comes from Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. Their recent rhetoric appears to rule out the idea of a rapid reduction in troop levels while maintaining an insistence on achieving "victory" in Iraq.
In Vietnam for an Asian economic summit, Bush said Friday, "We'll succeed in Iraq unless we quit," adding that he was assuring regional leaders gathered with him that "we'll get the job done."
And speaking Friday in Washington, Cheney suggested that the midterm election results would not sway administration policy. "To get out of Iraq before the job is done would convince the terrorists once again that free nations will change our policies, forsake our friends and abandon our interests whenever we are confronted with violence and blackmail," he said in a speech to the Federalist Society.
Some observers say any increase in troops would fly in the face of public opinion as expressed in the midterm elections. Polls released last week show support for Bush's handling of Iraq falling to new lows.
At the same time, the Pentagon on Friday issued deployment orders to maintain the current level of troops in Iraq through 2007, with the door left open to "surging" more troops into the country as conditions and strategy dictate.
An increase is logistically possible, although at a growing cost to the troops, military experts say. Some of the soldiers scheduled for deployment next year will be undertaking a third tour to Iraq when the expectation had been for only one.
"Just to keep the level of 144,000, we're having to extend two brigades beyond a year. So we're already talking about major hardship for these soldiers," said Lawrence Korb, an Iraq policy expert at the Center for American Progress in Washington. "Any increase, even a relatively small one like what they're talking about, would compound that strain."
Supporters of a troop increase say it would allow for a serious push for security in Baghdad, giving the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki breathing room to make the political decisions necessary to relaunch a "national reconciliation" drive. More U.S. troops and money also would be put into stepped-up training of Iraqi security forces.
But critics say an increase in U.S. troops could reduce the pressure on the Maliki government for crucial decisions, even while inflaming Iraqi public opinion that is increasingly hostile to the U.S. presence.
"We've already increased troop levels, and things haven't gotten any better," said Korb, who served in the Pentagon in the Reagan administration. Others who have supported sending in more troops in the past say the time when it could make a difference probably has passed.
"I have made the argument for more troops for some time, but I no longer do because I think it's too late," said Ullman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
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