WASHINGTON - Top U.S. military commanders in Iraq have decided to recommend a "surge" of fresh American combat forces, eliminating one of the last remaining hurdles to proposals being considered by President Bush for a troop increase, a defense official familiar with the plan said yesterday.
The approval by top Iraq commanders, including Gen. George W. Casey Jr. and Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, of a plan to increase troops comes days before Bush unveils a new course for the troubled U.S. involvement in Iraq. Bush must still address concerns among some Pentagon officials and overcome opposition from Congress, where many Democrats favor a blue-ribbon commission's recommendation for a gradual withdrawal of combat troops.
But the recommendation by the commanders in Iraq is significant because Bush has placed prime importance on their advice. The U.S. command in Iraq decided to recommend an increase of troops several days ago, before meetings in Baghdad this week with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, the defense official said.
Gates, who returned to Washington yesterday, will join Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and national security adviser Stephen Hadley in meetings with President Bush today at Camp David. White House Press Secretary Dana Perino said the meeting was part of the Iraq strategy review, and Bush was not expected to make a final decision on the administration's new policy.
Commanders have been skeptical of the value of increasing troops, and the decision represents a reversal for Casey, the highest-ranking officer in Iraq. Casey and Gen. John P. Abizaid, the top commander in the Middle East, who will step down in March, have long resisted adding more troops in Iraq, arguing that it could delay the development of Iraqi security forces and increase anger at the United States in the Arab world.
The defense official said that commanders have not determined the exact number of extra troops they will request. Military officers have debated an increase of about 20,000, about five extra combat brigades. But while some officers believe five extra brigades would be difficult to muster, others believe more troops will be required.
"People are warming to the realization that some sort of surge is necessary," said another military official.
The officials spoke on the condition that their names not be revealed because Bush has not announced a final decision on his Iraq policy.
Bush recently called for an increase in the overall size of the Army and Marine Corps. But he stressed he has not made a decision on whether to send more troops to Iraq and wants to speak further with Gates.
Some members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff remain skeptical of a surge, unconvinced that it will yield more positive results than other recent military operations to secure Baghdad or Iraq. But other military officers have said that a buildup in troops is America's last chance to roll back the sectarian violence, neutralize the insurgency and strengthen the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Many military officers maintain that there is no middle ground strategy for Iraq, that America must either increase the force, gambling that the military can impose a measure of security on Iraq, or else begin to withdraw its forces.
Those skeptical about the efficacy of an increase argue that any new troops must be given clear instructions. However, defense officials say the U.S. commanders in Iraq have not settled on what that mission should be, although they are expected to decide before calling up new units.
Gates may have been alluding to that yesterday, when he told reporters he has asked Casey to make specific recommendations on how to improve security in Iraq and to work with Iraqi military leaders to "put flesh on those bones" of a new security plan.
"There is still some work to be done between General Casey and his counterparts in the Iraqi government," Gates said. "But I do expect to give a report to the president on what I have learned and my perceptions."
Some officials remain concerned that the command in Iraq has not drafted a new battle plan or begun to develop new operations. These officials worry that even with an addition of extra troops, the American forces will continue using existing tactics, which have failed to stem sectarian violence.
Julian E. Barnes writes for the Los Angeles Times.