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.

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.

Statements from Bush and Cheney

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."

And speaking Friday in Washington, Mr. Cheney suggested 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.

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, though at a growing cost to the troops, military experts say. Some of the soldiers slated for deployment in 2007 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," says 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 US troops and money would also be put into stepped-up training of Iraqi security forces.

But critics say an increase in US troops could reduce the pressure on the Maliki government for crucial political decisions, even while inflaming Iraqi public opinion that is increasingly hostile to the US presence.

"We've already increased troop levels, and things haven't gotten any better," says Mr. Korb, who served in the Pentagon under the Reagan administration. He notes that US troop levels dipped to nearly 100,000 earlier this year before sectarian violence began ratcheting up.

Too late?

Others who have supported sending in more troops in the past say the time when it could make a difference has probably passed. "I have made the argument for more troops for some time, but I no longer do because I think it's too late," says Mr. Ullman of CSIS.

The additional US troops with the right skills to potentially make a difference in Baghdad and with training Iraqi forces aren't simply sitting around somewhere at the ready, he says. Preparing them would take six months to a year, he adds.

But beyond that, Ullman says the Maliki government is beholden to political powers sustained by dozens of militias. "That's not something the US military is in a position to do anything about," he says.

Korb says sending in more troops risks signaling to the Iraqi army that it is under no increasing pressure to take on more of the burden – a point made in congressional testimony last week by Gen. John Abizaid, commander of US forces in the Middle East.

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.

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