President Bush's new Iraq strategy calls for a rapid influx of forces that could add as many as 20,000 U.S. troops to Baghdad, supplemented...
WASHINGTON — President Bush’s new Iraq strategy calls for a rapid influx of forces that could add as many as 20,000 U.S. troops to Baghdad, supplemented with a jobs program costing as much as $1 billion intended to employ Iraqis in projects including painting schools and cleaning streets, according to U.S. officials.
The U.S. officials said Iraq’s prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, formally agreed in a long teleconference with Bush on Thursday to match the U.S. troop increase, made up of five combat brigades that would come in at a rate of roughly one a month, by sending three additional Iraqi brigades to Baghdad over the next month and a half.
Nonetheless, even in outlining the plan, some U.S. officials acknowledged deep skepticism about whether the new Iraq plan could succeed.
They said two-thirds of the promised Iraqi force would consist of Kurdish peshmerga units to be sent from northern Iraq, and they said some doubts remained about whether they would show up in Baghdad and were truly committed to quelling sectarian fighting.
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The call for an increase in troops also would put Bush in direct confrontation with leaders of the new Democratic Congress, who said in a letter to the president Thursday that the United States should move instead toward a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops, to begin within four months.
Bush is expected to make the plan public this week, probably Wednesday in an address to the nation that will cast the initiative as a joint effort by the United States and Iraq to reclaim control of Baghdad neighborhoods racked by sectarian violence. Officials said Bush probably would be vague on the question of how long the additional U.S. forces would remain in Baghdad. But they said U.S. planners intended for the push to last for less than a year.
A crucial element of the plan would include more than doubling the State Department’s reconstruction efforts, an initiative intended by the administration to signal that the new strategy would emphasize rebuilding as much as fighting.
But previous U.S. reconstruction efforts in Iraq have failed to translate into support from the Iraqi population, and some Republicans as well as Democratic leaders have questioned whether a troop increase would do more than postpone the inevitable and precarious moment when Iraqi forces have to stand on their own.
Congress has the power to halt increases by cutting off money for Bush’s proposals. But some Democrats are torn about whether to press ahead with such a move for fear that it will appear that they are not supporting the troops.
In his speech Bush will cast much of the program as an effort to bolster Iraq’s efforts to take command over their forces and territory, the U.S. officials said. He will express confidence that al-Maliki is committed to bringing under control both the Sunni-led insurgency and the Shiite militias that have emerged as the source of most of the violence.
Al-Maliki picked up those themes in a speech Saturday in Baghdad in which he said that multinational troops would support an Iraqi effort to secure the capital.
Officials who spoke to The New York Times would not say specifically whether the U.S. troop increase would be carried out if the Iraqis failed to make good on their commitment to add to their ranks. But they emphasized that the U.S. influx, which would be focused in Baghdad and Anbar province but also would include a contingency force in Kuwait, could be re-evaluated at any point.
The U.S. officials who described the plan to The New York Times included some who said they increasingly were concerned about al-Maliki’s intentions and his ability to deliver. They said senior Bush administration officials had been deeply disturbed by accounts from witnesses to the Dec. 30 hanging of Saddam Hussein, who said they believed that guards involved in carrying out the execution were linked to the Mahdi Army, the Shiite militia that is headed by Muqtada al-Sadr, whose name some of the executioners shouted while Saddam stood on the gallows.
“If that’s an indication of how Maliki is operating these days, we’ve got a deeper problem with the bigger effort,” said one official who insisted on anonymity.
Others have doubts, too.
“I don’t know that the Iraqi government has ever demonstrated ability to lead the country, and we shouldn’t be surprised,” retired Army Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, the first U.S. official in charge of postwar Baghdad, told The Washington Post. “You’ll never find — in my lifetime — one man that all the Iraqis will coalesce around.” Iraqis are too divided among sectarian, ethnic and tribal loyalties, he said, and their loyalties are regional, not national.
The details of Bush’s latest military, economic and political initiatives were described by several sources, including some who said they doubted it would work. The jobs program, one noted, “would have been great in 2003 or even 2004, but we are trying it now in a very different Iraq,” one in which the passion for fighting for sectarian control of neighborhoods may outweigh interests in obtaining employment.
The U.S. officials who described the program included both advocates and critics of Bush’s new strategy, and included representatives of three executive-branch departments. They would speak only on condition of anonymity.
The most immediate element of the new jobs program would amount to a major expansion of a program that provides money to local officers to put civilians to work as a way of reducing resistance to the U.S. presence in neighborhoods. While the effort has had some successes, they largely have been temporary. As a senior White House official noted, “You’d go into a neighborhood, clear it, try to hold it, and come back later and discover that it’s all been shattered.”
The new effort, officials said, would cost up to $1 billion, some of which would be spent on other efforts to achieve stability and train Iraqis for more permanent jobs. Both the State Department and the Treasury Department have been brought into that effort.
The plan also calls for a more than doubling of the relatively small groups of State Department officials who are empowered to coordinate local reconstruction efforts.
For much of the first half of 2006, the State Department was engaged in a bureaucratic dispute with the Defense Department about how these teams would be protected, including exploration of a plan to hire private protective forces that a White House official said “was too expensive.”
Those teams now will be expanded and embedded with the combat brigades, officials said, in what would amount to the latest effort to demonstrate to Iraqis that the U.S. forces in their midst were not just occupiers.
Much of the plan described by officials seemed to be consistent with views supported by Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, who soon will take over as the commander of ground forces in Iraq and who has been a strong advocate of an everyday U.S. troop presence in neighborhoods.
Bush’s speech is widely expected to make the case that Americans needed to commit to greater national sacrifice as part of what Bush administration officials acknowledge amounted to a last-ditch effort to salvage the mission in Iraq.
But almost as soon as his speech is done, a series of hearings will begin on Capitol Hill that Democrats intend to use to pick apart the details of the plan.
Those hearings also will likely focus on whether the expanded U.S. military commitment is linked to Iraqi military performance, a point that Bush administration officials would not address directly.
As described by those officials, Bush is stopping well short of declaring that the beefed-up U.S. force will only be sent if the Iraqis also increase their forces. But under the phased increase being contemplated, every month between now and April or May, Bush will have a chance to decide whether to send an additional combat brigade into the country.