US troop levels in Iraq may rise, then decline
The White House appears to be leaning toward an increase of 20,000 troops in Iraq.
It's being dubbed by some as the "last big push" option, and it appears increasingly to be what President Bush favors on Iraq.Skip to next paragraph
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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 US troop levels.
The numbers would not be huge, perhaps 20,000 on top of the 144,000 US soldiers already fighting the war. 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 US 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 US 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," says Harlan Ullman, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) 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 growing consensus that the current approach in Iraq is not working, has weighed new directions.
The Iraq Study Group – the 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 Mr. 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."