Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, who takes over today as U.S. commander in Iraq, is assembling a band of warrior-intellectuals in a crucial effort...

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WASHINGTON — Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, who takes over today as U.S. commander in Iraq, is assembling a band of warrior-intellectuals in a crucial effort to reverse the downward trend in the Iraq war.

Members include a quirky Australian anthropologist, a Princeton economist who is the son of a former U.S. attorney general and a military expert on the Vietnam War sharply critical of its top commanders.

Army officers tend to refer to the group as “Petraeus guys” — smart colonels who have been noticed by Petraeus, and who make up one of the most select clubs in the world: military officers with doctorates from top-flight universities and combat experience in Iraq.

Essentially, the Army is turning the war over to its dissidents, who have criticized the way the service has operated there over the past three years, and letting them try to wage the war their way.

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“Their role is crucial if we are to reverse the effects of four years of conventional mind-set fighting an unconventional war,” said one Special Forces colonel who knows some of the officers.

But there is widespread skepticism that even this unusual group, with its specialized knowledge of counterinsurgency methods, will be able to win the battle of Baghdad.

“Petraeus’ ‘brain trust’ is an impressive bunch, but I think it’s too late to salvage success in Iraq,” said a professor at a military war college, who said he thinks the general will still not have sufficient troops to implement a genuine counterinsurgency strategy, and also that the United States really has no solution for the sectarian violence tearing apart Iraq.

“Petraeus’ guys”

Members of the staff assembled by Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, who takes command of U.S. forces in Iraq today:

Col. Michael Meese, a Princeton economist and son of former U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese, will coordinate security and reconstruction efforts.

Lt. Col. David Kilcullen, an Australian army officer with a Ph.D. in anthropology who studied Islamic extremism in Indonesia, will be chief adviser on counterinsurgency operations

Col. Peter Mansoor, who received a Ph.D. at Ohio State for a dissertation on how Army infantry divisions were developed during World War II, will be Petraeus’ executive officer in Baghdad.

Col. H.R. McMaster’s 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in northwestern Iraq provided one of the few bright spots for the U.S. military in Iraq by taking back the city of Tall Afar from an insurgent group.

Lt. Col. Douglas Ollivant, who holds a political-science Ph.D. on Thomas Jefferson, caught Petraeus’ attention with an essay scorning the U.S. military’s reliance on big “forward operating bases” in Iraq.

Ahmed Hashim, who holds a Ph.D. from MIT and teaches at the Naval War College, wrote a book criticizing the U.S. military operation in Iraq and advocated partitioning the country along ethnic and sectarian lines.

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“It’s too late to make a difference in Iraq,” agreed Bruce Hoffman, a Georgetown University terrorism expert who has advised the U.S. government on the war effort.

Having academic specialists advise top commanders is not new. Gen. George Casey, Petraeus’ predecessor, established a small panel of counterinsurgency experts, but it was limited to an advisory role.

The group’s members are very much in the mold of Petraeus, whose 2003-04 tour commanding the 101st Airborne Division in Mosul, the biggest city in northern Iraq, gave the U.S. military one of its few notable success stories of the war. He also holds a Ph.D. in international affairs from Princeton University.

As the U.S.-designed campaign to bring security to Baghdad unfolds, Petraeus’ chief economic adviser, Col. Michael Meese, will coordinate security and reconstruction efforts. Meese, who also holds a Ph.D. from Princeton, where he studied how the Army historically handled budget cuts, is the son of former Attorney General Edwin Meese, who was a member of the Iraq Study Group, the bipartisan commission whose December critique helped push the Bush administration to shift its approach in Baghdad.

Petraeus has chosen as his chief adviser on counterinsurgency operations an outspoken officer in the Australian army. Lt. Col. David Kilcullen holds a Ph.D. in anthropology, for which he studied Islamic extremism in Indonesia.

Kilcullen has served in Cyprus, Papua New Guinea and East Timor, and he most recently was chief strategist for the State Department’s counterterrorism office. His 2006 essay “Twenty-Eight Articles: Fundamentals of Company-Level Counterinsurgency” was read by Petraeus, who sent it rocketing around the Army. Among Kilcullen’s dictums: “Rank is nothing: talent is everything” — a subversive thought in an organization as hierarchical as the U.S. military.

The two most influential members of the brain trust are likely to be Col. Peter Mansoor and Col. H.R. McMaster, whose influence already outstrips their rank. Both served on a secret panel convened last fall by Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to review Iraq strategy.

The panel’s core conclusion, never released to the public but discussed with President Bush on Dec. 13, according to an officer on the Joint Staff, was that the U.S. government should seek to “go long” in Iraq by shifting from a combat stance to a long-term training-and-advisory effort. But to make that shift, the review also concluded, the U.S. military might first have to “spike” its presence by about 20,000 to 30,000 troops to curb sectarian violence and improve security in Baghdad. That is almost exactly what the U.S. government hopes to do over the next eight months.

Mansoor, who commanded a brigade of the 1st Armored Division in Baghdad in 2003-04, received a Ph.D. at Ohio State for a dissertation on how Army infantry divisions were developed during World War II. He will be Petraeus’ executive officer in Baghdad.

McMaster’s command of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in northwestern Iraq in 2005-06 provided one of the few bright spots for the U.S. military in Iraq over the past year. In a patiently executed campaign, he took back the city of Tall Afar from an insurgent group, and was so successful that Bush dedicated much of a speech to the operation.

The author of the well-received book “Dereliction of Duty,” about the failures of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Vietnam War, McMaster is expected to operate for Petraeus as a long-distance adviser on strategy while at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

Beyond those senior officers is a larger ring of advisers whose views are shaping planning for the Baghdad plan.

Lt. Col. Douglas Ollivant caught Petraeus’ eye last year with an essay that scorned the U.S. military’s reliance in Iraq on big “forward operating bases.” “Having a fortress mentality simply isolates the counterinsurgent from the fight,” he wrote.

Rather, argued Ollivant, a veteran of battles in Najaf and Fallujah who holds a political-science Ph.D. on Thomas Jefferson, U.S. forces should operate from patrol bases co-located with Iraqi military and police units. That is exactly what Petraeus plans to do in Baghdad .

Another adviser will be Ahmed Hashim, a Naval War College professor of strategy who served as a military intelligence officer in Iraq and wrote a book critical of how the U.S. military has operated there.

Hashim, who holds a Ph.D. from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, concluded his study by arguing that the best course would be to partition the country along ethnic and sectarian lines.

For all that, many military insiders are skeptical that the extra brainpower ultimately will make much difference, or that lessons of Tall Afar or Mosul will be applied easily in Baghdad.

The joke among some staff officers was that Petraeus operated in such a freewheeling manner in Iraq’s north that he had his own foreign policy with Syria and Turkey. In Baghdad, he will have to operate with Iraqi officials, with the U.S. government bureaucracy, and under the glare of the global media spotlight. Also, experts agree that the basic problem in Iraq is political, not military, so while a military campaign can create a breathing space for politicians, it cannot by itself reverse the dynamic driving Iraqis to fight a civil war.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if Congress pulled the rug out or the Iraqis blocked major revisions in strategy,” said Erin Simpson, a Harvard counterinsurgency expert. “I think they’re going to be a very frustrated group.”

Kilcullen, the counterinsurgency adviser, writing recently on www.smallwarsjournal.com, commented, “All that the new strategy can do is give us a fighting chance of success, and it certainly does give us that.”

Post researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.