About Troop Levels In Iraq May Rise
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Troop Levels In Iraq May Rise info
November 16, 2006
The Central Command head says he sent 2,000 Marines and requested more military advisors.
By Peter Spiegel, Times Staff Writer
WASHINGTON — The commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East said Wednesday that he had requested an increase in the number of U.S. military advisors in Iraq and had sent another 2,000-Marine unit into the country's restive western region, moves that will increase the number of American troops in Iraq.
In two back-to-back hearings on Capitol Hill, Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, head of U.S. Central Command, also forcefully resisted calls by Democrats for troop withdrawals, saying it would further increase sectarian violence. He defended plans for keeping troop levels at or slightly above the current 141,000 and said he remained optimistic that Iraq could become stable.
But Abizaid, who unlike his civilian superiors has been shown considerable respect by lawmakers in the past, was repeatedly challenged Wednesday by Democrats and Republicans — on his conduct of the war and his candidness with congressional oversight committees.
Abizaid was met with deep skepticism and doubt in the Senate, where even Republicans who have supported the war effort pointedly questioned his judgment on troop levels and his optimistic assessment of the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces.
The criticism from such a broad spectrum of lawmakers — coming at the first Capitol Hill hearing on Iraq since Republicans were trounced in the midterm election and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld resigned — signaled a more active role by members of Congress in challenging the Bush administration about the war's conduct.
Until now, Rumsfeld has been the primary lightning rod for congressional skeptics. But with Rumsfeld's pending departure and the Democratic takeover of Congress, top generals like Abizaid are likely to face a greater brunt of the criticism.
"I must say that I come to this hearing with a great deal of skepticism, because prior to this hearing, there's been a great deal of obfuscation by the witnesses in front of this committee as to what the truth is," said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who has supported the war.
The heightened tension, and Abizaid's steadfast defense of current troop levels, also came amid ever growing signs that the Pentagon and the White House are considering a significant shift in policy in Iraq.
Defending the status quo
In addition to a widely anticipated report from the bipartisan Iraq Study Group and a separate review by the Pentagon's Joint Staff, the administration said Wednesday that President Bush had ordered an internal review by the National Security Council that would bring together the thinking of various government agencies on how to move forward in Iraq.
"[Bush] thought it was high time that these reviews be brought together and put in an integrated form so he can get a look at it and begin getting in his own mind what the way forward needs to be in Iraq," national security advisor Stephen J. Hadley told reporters traveling to Asia with Bush on Air Force One.
Against a barrage of questions both from lawmakers calling for phased withdrawals and those advocating an increase in troops, Abizaid frequently defended the status quo, warning against timetables and insisting current troop levels were adequate to quell violence and help prepare Iraqi forces.
"Our troop posture needs to stay where it is as we move to enhance the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces," Abizaid said.
The assessment was supported by Lt. Gen. Michael D. Maples, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, who contended in testimony later Wednesday that the presence of U.S. forces was the bulwark against the breakdown of central authority in Iraq and suggested that a withdrawal could lead to the collapse of the government.
Still, Maples appeared more pessimistic than Abizaid, telling the Senate panel that sectarian violence was still on the increase and was undermining public support for the government and the nascent Iraqi military.
"I think we still have the opportunity for success, but it will be a very difficult process to get us to where we want to be, both from a security standpoint and from a political standpoint, in Iraq," Maples said.
Ire from both sides
Abizaid said that though sectarian violence remained at unacceptably high levels, it had declined since August, when he told the same Senate committee that Iraq was at risk of sliding into civil war.
Abizaid's steadfastness on troop levels drew ire from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, particularly Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a probable 2008 presidential contender who has become the most vocal advocate for an increase in U.S. troops in Iraq.
Seizing on Abizaid's acknowledgment that western Al Anbar province was not under coalition control and that troops that might have been used to secure the Sunni insurgent stronghold had been diverted to Baghdad, McCain charged Abizaid was failing to prevent a return of insurgent control by refusing to send in additional U.S. forces.
"Wouldn't it make sense to … get both Baghdad and Al Anbar province under control before we have another battle of Fallouja and lose many more lives?" asked McCain. "I don't understand that tactic, General."
Abizaid conceded that sending 20,000 additional troops into Iraq might temporarily quell violence. But he insisted that it would also frustrate American efforts to get the Iraqi government to take more responsibility for the country's internal security.
He acknowledged, however, that the U.S. should have had more troops in Iraq in the early post-invasion period, saying that Army Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, the former Army chief of staff who broke with Rumsfeld after advocating a larger invasion force, was correct in his assessment.
But Abizaid added that under current conditions, even if it were in Iraq's best interest to increase the presence of U.S. forces, it would be difficult for the Pentagon to find additional combat troops without expanding the size of the active-duty military.
Nonetheless, Abizaid acknowledged that he planned to increase troop levels in the near term. Abizaid ordered into Iraq the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which had been on ships in the Persian Gulf for months as a backup reserve force. The deployment will raise troop levels above the current 141,000.
A Defense official said the Marines had landed in Kuwait ahead of their deployment to Al Anbar, which has continued to see some of the fiercest fighting between American forces and insurgents despite a U.S.-led offensive in the region that began four months ago.
In addition, Abizaid said he would request the number of military advisors in Iraq be "substantially increased," largely by adding to the size of the nearly 300 embedded teams, now composed of 11 soldiers each. He said the number of soldiers to be added to each team was still being worked out by his staff.
Abizaid's announcement is the latest sign that the Pentagon sees the advisors, who are embedded in Iraqi military units, as a central pillar to the evolving U.S. strategy in Iraq. Abizaid acknowledged that an increase in the number of advisors could boost the number of U.S. forces in Iraq but said his staff was attempting to find out whether it could be achieved by shifting troops inside the country.
Abizaid said he believed the U.S. had only four to six months to get violence in Iraq under control before it reached a level where it might be impossible to contain. Army Gen. George W. Casey, commander of coalition forces in Iraq, said last month that he believed Iraqi forces would be able to take over security operations in 12 to 18 months, but Abizaid said he was working to speed up that timetable.
Times staff writer Julian E. Barnes contributed to this report.