WASHINGTON -- In a major shift of strategy, American combat troops will be redeployed from outlying Iraqi towns and cities into Baghdad in a bid to end the vicious sectarian violence that has claimed thousands of civilian lives in the Iraqi capital, President Bush announced yesterday.
For almost three years, since U.S.-led forces overthrew Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein, the United States had pursued a strategy of training and equipping Iraqi security forces to replace American troops.
"As they stand up, we will stand down," Bush has said repeatedly.
But while about 240,000 Iraqis are on duty, the security forces have been unable to quell the rising sectarian violence, particularly in Baghdad.
In recent weeks, the Iraqi capital has been torn by violence, much of it directed against civilians in a wave of killings, torture and kidnappings. Police officers and recruits are often targets of the violence, carried out by Shiite and Sunni Arab militias. According to a United Nations report released last week, 6,000 Iraqis were killed in May and June across the country, a rate of about 100 a day.
For Bush, who has recently tried to build his credibility on the war by showing willingness to adjust strategy, this has meant acknowledging that a major effort to improve security in Baghdad, launched in May by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, had failed.
"Obviously, the violence in Baghdad is still terrible, and therefore there needs to be more troops," Bush said yesterday at a White House news conference with al-Maliki by his side. "There needs to be more forces inside Baghdad who are willing to hold people to account."
The new strategy, Bush said, was adopted at al-Maliki's urging and with the agreement of U.S. commanders in Iraq. It will have U.S. combat troops scouring neighborhoods in Baghdad, attempting to identify and separate insurgents and sympathizers, and then turning over the secured neighborhoods to Iraqi security forces. The plan also calls for more U.S. military police to work alongside Iraqi police units.
Iraqi security forces will provide most of the manpower for the neighborhood-centered operations, U.S. officials said.
Nevertheless, the operations will impose on American troops the burden of trying to sort out civilians from insurgents, which analysts said will be difficult given the shortage of translators with U.S. combat units. The operations also will expose American troops to increased risks from improvised explosives, suicide bombers and snipers, analysts said.
During their joint appearance before reporters in the ornate East Room, which followed private talks in the Oval Office, Bush pledged that "America will not abandon the Iraqi people.
"He comes wondering whether or not we're committed," Bush said, glancing at the Iraqi leader. "And I assured him that this government stands with the Iraqi people."
White House and Pentagon officials were unable to say yesterday how many troops would be involved in the redeployments, or who will handle security in areas from which the troops are drawn - a key concern for U.S. commanders in violence-racked cities such as Ramadi, west of Baghdad.
Neither did Bush administration officials say how long the Baghdad duty would last.
Asked at an afternoon briefing how many U.S. troops would be redeployed into Baghdad, Stephen J. Hadley, the White House national security adviser, replied: "The answer is, we don't know at this point."
Hadley stressed that the plan does not require more U.S. troops to be brought in from outside Iraq.
"This is a repositioning of forces in a way that reflects the situation on the ground," Hadley said. "Armed gangs are going around murdering people, often in broad daylight. People have to be held to account if there is going to be stability" in Baghdad and the rest of the country.
Currently, there are 127,000 U.S. troops stationed in Iraq.
But drawing U.S. troops from surrounding areas and sending them to Baghdad could jeopardize gains elsewhere that American GIs and Marines have won at high cost.
Army Col. Sean MacFarland, who commands Multinational Forces West in violence-torn Anbar province, west of Baghdad, has made it clear that he can spare no troops. MacFarland commands a reinforced brigade of the 1st Armored Division that is composed of seven battalions of soldiers and Marines.
"I think we have turned a corner here in Ramadi," he told reporters in a Pentagon briefing July 14. "We're now at the point where we are beginning to take the city back from the insurgents. And now it's important for us to hold what we've got and to begin to build where we hold."
The risks for the United States are clear, said Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat.
"Unfortunately for us, this is a shrewd and reactive insurgency, and when you withdraw troops from one area, my presumption is they will see that area as a target of opportunity," said Reed, a West Point-educated former paratrooper who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee. "This has been the case throughout, where we have gone in and cleared areas and because of crises elsewhere we have withdrawn them."
Military analysts saw the announced redeployment of troops into Baghdad as a significant development in the long U.S. effort to provide basic security in Iraq. A major effort has gone into training Iraqi security forces, largely disbanded by U.S. authorities in May 2003.
At present, 116,500 Iraqi combat troops have been trained and equipped, along with 22,700 national police and 101,200 local Iraqi police, according to the Pentagon.
But the quality of the forces is uneven, U.S. officials have acknowledged. And during his visit to Washington this week, al-Maliki complained that his army and police need better weapons, more vehicles and better protective gear, which Bush promised to provide.
Al-Maliki, a Shiite politician who spent years in exile in Iran, took office May 20 with the avowed aim of improving security in Baghdad and forging national reconciliation among Iraq's fractious sectarian communities. Neither initiative seems to be working.
"I think the reason is, this is fundamentally not a military problem, it's a police problem," said Reed. "But they're running out of options."
Counterinsurgency experts said the key to success in the new neighborhood strategy is patience.
"You've got to stay there to make it really work, and that probably will take several years," said retired Marine Col. Thomas X. Hammes, author of a popular book on counterinsurgency, The Sling and the Stone.
"It's an enormous challenge, and we are going to have to work very hard at it," said Hammes. "We still have insufficient numbers of translators and cultural knowledge. And, of course, you are set back where you draw troops from."
Sun reporter Julie Hirschfeld Davis contributed to this article.