US leaders rethinking Iraq tactics

Some have indicated flexibility on troop levels, but stop short of any major changes, experts say.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The Iraq war can still be won.

That may be the basic message that US officials have been trying hard to convey to an uneasy American public this week.

From President Bush on down, an unusual array of administration and military leaders have stepped up to podiums in recent days and talked about the precepts of the US approach to Iraq. Among other things, they've indicated flexibility on such things as troop levels, and said they don't foresee any US withdrawals for at least a year to 18 months.

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But nothing they've said indicates major changes in US strategy, say some experts. And even top generals say that Iraq's ultimate outcome won't fully depend on military power.

There can't be any long-term security in Iraq "without the political decisions and accommodations that must be made in that country," said Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in a press briefing on Monday.

This week's parade of press appearances has included an unusual joint briefing in Baghdad by US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and Gen. George Casey, the top military commander in the region. General Pace followed with his own media conference at the Pentagon in Washington. On Wednesday, President Bush himself took questions at the White House.

Mr. Bush acknowledged that the spike of violence in Iraq has been worrisome. "The events of the past month have been a serious concern to me and a serious concern to the American people," he said.

Bush said that he would send more US troops if General Casey requested them. But he added that it would be dangerous to set a fixed timetable for the eventual withdrawal of American forces.

The US will set benchmarks for the current Iraqi government on such critical tasks as cracking down on private militias. But Bush added that Washington won't put more pressure on the Iraqi government than it can bear.

The administration will carefully consider any proposal that might help achieve victory. But "there is tough fighting ahead," said Bush. "The road to victory will not be easy. We should not expect a simple solution."

Though mid-term elections are now less than two weeks away, the administration denied that it was engaging in a concentrated media campaign on the Iraq war that involved American military commanders.

That said, the overall message of the appearances might best be summed, not as "changes will be made", but as "changes might be made, at some time in the future," according to some experts in the US.

The discussion about possible changes in troop levels, for instance, was not particularly new, says Michele Flournoy, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who was a Department of Defense planner during the Clinton administration.

"I didn't interpret anything they were saying as a change in strategy," says Flournoy.

Casey has been musing in public about possibly bulking up US forces for some time. But few additional troops may be available.

The readiness of non-deployed military units in the US is now at an all-time low, says Flournoy of CSIS. Calling up additional units from the Guard and Reserve might be politically difficult.

Real changes in strategy might be such things as appointing former Secretary of State James Baker to carry out shuttle diplomacy in the region, or increasing by ten-fold the number of US military advisors embedded with Iraqi military units.

"Those are the kinds of things it would take" to make a real difference in the region, says Flournoy.

Troop levels have long been one of the most-discussed aspects of the US military approach in Iraq.

Critics have said that the current level of US forces there, about 144,000, is too low, and reflects an obsession on the part of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and others to prove their own theories about the power and flexiblity of light forces.

Secretary Rumsfeld has heatedly denied this charge. He and other Bush officials say that troop levels in Iraq reflect the requests of US generals. Bush himself reiterated on Wednesday that the military is in charge of military matters.

"That's how I've run this war," he said.

Yet more troops might allow the US to better implement the so-called "ink spot" theory of stabalization in Iraq, said Council on Foreign Relations fellow in Middle Eastern studies Steven Simon at a recent forum on the way forward.

Two more divisions – which Simon admitted would be hard to find – could allow stabalization of Baghdad, and then a gradual, step-by-step process of stabalization of remaining restive areas.

The western province of Anbar, hotbed of the insurgency, might be left for last.

"You try and get as much of the country under control and get the Iraqi government's influence embedded in those areas," said Mr. Simon. "And with more troops, you might be able to do it."

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