WASHINGTON — Even with the surge in US troops in Iraq to 150,000, their highest level since major combat ended, US military leaders warn that security in the country will worsen as insurgents "pull out all the stops" to disrupt elections scheduled for Jan. 30.
With the insurgents waging an intensifying campaign of intimidation, and Iraqi forces so far inadequate to secure the country, the officials voice determination to send in as many US troops as required.
"If additional troops are needed, they'll be provided.... There are no caps," Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at a Monitor breakfast on Thursday.
"Those that don't want [elections] to happen are going to pull out all the stops," General Myers said. He added that assassinations and attacks on Iraqi government officials and security forces "at the municipal level all the way up to the national level... will continue," as violence escalates with the election's approach.
Myers said he does not now see signs of a civil war brewing, but he did predict that targeted killings of Iraqis who join the new government would continue "for years to come."
US commanders intend to use the overall increase of about 12,000 US troops in Iraq from now until early spring in offensive operations to keep up the pressure on hard-core insurgents in key cities such as Baghdad, rather than directly to safeguard the election process, military officials say.
"The mission is to continue to hunt for insurgents who have been scattered because of Fallujah," General Myers said. "We've got to keep the pressure on them in major cities, particularly in Baghdad.... It's got about 20 percent of the country's population. It's important that that be secure." For example, some 1,500 fresh troops from the 82nd Airborne Division will leave the US for Iraq this month, where they will provide security in Baghdad's Green Zone and other areas, freeing combat-hardened 1st Cavalry soldiers, whose tours in Iraq have been extended, to refocus on troubled neighborhoods in central Baghdad and the Shiite enclave of Sadr City.
Myers declined to give any estimate of the number of enemy fighters, which US military intelligence put at up to 12,000 before the Fallujah offensive, saying they blend easily with the civilian population and could be "one day an insurgent, the next day a shopkeeper." But he said "there's some hard core that will have to be dealt with, ... either killed or captured, and that's one of the reasons we're putting more forces in there."
Iraqi security forces, which now total about 115,000, have yet to reach the "critical mass" needed to secure the country, Myers said. He said establishing Iraqi military and police leaders "is key to things like desertions and performance," and he acknowledged the leadership "is developing slower than we would like."
At the beginning of this year, US military officials intended to reduce the number of American troops in Iraq to about 110,000 by mid year and also predicted the Iraqi forces would grow to nearly 300,000 by now. Asked why these plans had gone awry, Myers responded: "The enemy gets a vote."
"I'm a realist," he said of the war. "Nobody predicted exactly where we'd be, and nobody can." Instead, he said the focus should be on how to respond to the shifting insurgency. "Where we need to be perfect is in our ability to adapt and our nimbleness in reacting."