Amid a spike in violence in Iraqi cities coinciding with the Fallujah offensive, the US military is now planning to boost combat forces to secure the country for elections in January.
The US is likely to expand the force by thousands of GIs in coming weeks by delaying the departure of more experienced units from Iraq as fresh troops rotate in, military officials say.
The overlap would create a temporary surge in American forces - which now number 141,000 in Iraq - to cope with an expected wave of insurgent attacks aimed at disrupting the polling. More US troops are required as Iraqi security forces remain highly vulnerable to attacks and intimidation. This was underscored by a rash of insurgent strikes on police stations in Mosul, Baqubah, and other cities in the past week, when attacks nationwide rose to 50 percent higher than the average in recent months.
Some US military officials have long argued that the United States cannot win the war in Iraq without committing tens of thousands more troops. Others contend that more troops would simply present more targets, and the US military should scale back and let Iraqis contend with much of the violence.
In reality, the US cannot substantially increase ground forces in Iraq for the long term without accepting risk in other parts of the world or making Iraq tours longer or closer together - a step sure to lower morale. "I'm committed to providing the troops that are requested, but I can't promise more than I've got," the Army chief of staff, Gen. Peter Schoomaker, told a Congressional hearing Wednesday in which military service chiefs detailed soaring demands on manpower and equipment.
"The demand on the force has increased exponentially," the Marine Corps commandant, Gen. Michael Hagee, told the House Armed Services Committee, saying Marines now spend about twice as much time deployed as two years ago.
Decisions are expected soon on extending specific units in Iraq, and on the possibility of deploying others early from bases in the US, according to senior military officials. In October, the military ordered some 6,500 troops to delay their departure from Iraq.
"There is ample opportunity" to increase troop levels by overlapping new arrivals with others whose tours would be extended as large units of 20,000 to 30,000 troops rotate, says a senior US military official in Baghdad. But a larger increase could run into constraints - the current limits of basing and support services.
The string of US-led military offensives on insurgent-held cities across Iraq since August has underscored the necessity for more American troops as well as elite Iraqi commando units. They're needed to step in for struggling local Iraqi security forces that are frequently unwilling or unable to fight off insurgents who threaten them and their families.
"When you take an area that has a stronghold of insurgents and you have to build the Iraqi police force from that population, you set yourself up potentially for failure if you don't have some type of moderating force," says Brig. Gen. Erv Lessel, deputy director for operations of Multinational Forces-Iraq.
To ensure that recaptured cities such as Fallujah and Samarra do not fall back under insurgent control, US commanders are having to commit additional forces to maintaining a presence there, both with US troops and non-local Iraqi forces such as Iraqi National Guard (ING) units from outside areas.
Indeed, in recent weeks US commanders have pushed thousands of additional soldiers and Marines into trouble spots in the Sunni triangle such as Fallujah, Samarra, Ramadi, and most recently the northern city of Mosul.
Samarra, for example, had no coalition presence prior to a major offensive in October to root out some 400 insurgents, but now 500 US troops and 500 Iraqi forces are stationed there. Even then, insurgent attacks killed 17 Iraqi police in the city on Nov. 6, as daily strikes in the region tripled.
In Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province, the US military doubled its forces recently from one to two battalions, and in recent days has engaged in heavy clashes with insurgents including some who fled from nearby Fallujah. US Marine commanders say they "control" Ramadi, a city of 450,000 people, but have not "cleared" it of insurgents. The increase in troops was needed in part because local Iraqi police and Iraqi National Guard (ING) units were ineffective, if not complicit with insurgents.
"Many ING and IP posts, compounds, and facilities have been blown up or handed over to the insurgents with nary a shot being fired. [There is] much acquiescence in the face of the murder and intimidation campaign," says a senior official of the 1st Marine Division, which oversees Anbar Province.
In Mosul, an estimated 400 insurgents took advantage of a drop in coalition presence during the Fallujah offensive to take over a dozen police stations, burning several of them as well as provincial governor's residence. City police "walked off their posts" and became "completely ineffective," US military officials say. The Mosul police chief was fired.
To quell the violence, US and Iraqi commanders had to impose a curfew, close bridges into the city, and call in two battalions of outside Iraqi forces - a commando unit from Baghdad and Kurdish ING battalion - as well as an additional US infantry battalion from Fallujah.The US strategy in Iraq envisions a growing role for Iraqi security forces, whose ranks are expected to grow from the current 110,000 to more than 150,000 by late January, when elections are scheduled. Yet so far, only a handful of elite Iraqi units have proven highly reliable, while the effectiveness of the bulk of local Iraqi forces remains uneven.
Iraqi commando units such as the 36th commando battalion have performed well in Najaf, Samarra, and Fallujah, US military officials say, yet these forces currently only number about 2,400, including the Iraqi Intervention Force and Special Operations Force. Iraq's Ministry of Interior now plans to add a new commando battalion.
"[There] is a recognition that [Iraqi commando units] are very, very capable and a desire to stand up more of them... because you can move them around the country and apply them where you need to work with local police forces," says General Lessel. "Everyone realizes that the real key to long term success and the biggest challenge is the Iraqi police," he says.