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U.S. faces long, difficult, bloody conflict under same strategy

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- President Bush outlined a tactical shift to the U.S. war in Iraq last night, but the basic strategy remains in place: a long-term and high-risk effort to simultaneously stabilize Iraq's most violent neighborhoods while training Iraqi security forces to take over the job, administration officials, military officers and analysts said.

The refocused campaign, which will double the American combat forces in Baghdad, is expected to be long, difficult and bloody, according to the plan's authors.

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It will impose additional hardships on U.S. troops by extending the combat tours of troops now in Iraq, by accelerating the deployments of soldiers and Marines already scheduled to go this year, and by re-mobilizing National Guard brigades that have already served combat tours in Iraq.

Effectively, Bush's plan will commit 17,500 more American soldiers to Baghdad's most violent neighborhoods and will keep them locked in battle there with sectarian militias and death squads.

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About 4,000 Marines will be sent to Anbar province west of Baghdad, which could raise the overall troop level in Iraq to about 154,000.

The deployment will add $5.6 billion to the expanding cost of the war.

"We have to be prepared for a bloody year because the enemy will fight us," warned Frederick W. Kagan, a senior analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, who developed the plan and was sent to Capitol Hill this week to brief members of Congress. He said it would take at least 18 months to show success.

"We have never had a plan to defeat the insurgency," said Gen. Jack M. Keane, recently retired Army vice chief of staff, who also worked with the White House to develop the plan. "That is what this plan is all about."

Little change

Yet Pentagon officials were unable to explain how Bush's outline differs in significant measure from "Operation Forward Together," which he launched with great fanfare with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki last July.

Under that scheme, thousands of U.S. combat troops were shifted into Baghdad from outlying locations.

"There needs to be more forces inside Baghdad who are willing to hold people to account," Bush said at the time.

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But the plan backfired, with violence rocketing to record levels.

It "failed for two principal reasons," Bush said last night. "There were not enough Iraqi and American troops to secure neighborhoods that had been cleared of terrorists and insurgents. And there were too many restrictions on the troops we did have."

This time, Bush said, additional American troops will stay in the neighborhoods they clear. The Iraqi government will no longer restrict U.S. forces from operating against the Shiite militia of Muqtada al-Sadr, a radical Shiite leader and a key political ally of al-Maliki.

Implementation of the plan will be overseen by a new military team including Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who replaced Donald H. Rumsfeld last month; Gen. David H. Petraeus, who will replace Gen. George W. Casey as the top commander in Iraq; and Adm. William J. Fallon, who will replace Gen. John Abizaid at the head of the regional headquarters, U.S. Central Command.

Petraeus, who has served two combat tours in Iraq, authored the Army's new counterinsurgency manual and is widely viewed as the Army's best choice to run the war in Iraq.

But senior military analysts were not impressed that the tactical shifts announced by Bush are significant.

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"Six brigades, the so-called surge, is not going to decisively change the course of the war," said Robert Killebrew, a retired Army strategist. "What we are hoping is that it will buy time for us to position the Iraqis to take over."

He and others described the president's strategy as high-risk because it raised expectations that visible progress can be made amid the violent chaos of Baghdad.

Bush is "betting that the level of violence will drop off so much it will be remarkable - and that's a very risky thing to bet on," given the strength of domestic political opposition to the war, said Killebrew.

The Pentagon, where many senior officers had advised against sending additional troops, was uncharacteristically quiet, declining to make any official comment on the plan, officials said, out of deference to Bush's high-profile speech.

More fighters

Privately, military officers said they were scrambling to understand precisely how to fill the new requirement announced by Bush for sending roughly 17,500 soldiers in five additional Army combat brigades into Baghdad and roughly 4,000 additional Marines to Anbar province, the heartland of the Sunni and al-Qaida insurgencies.

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Senior military officers are worried about the long-term effect of the increased troop commitment to Iraq, given that the military services are already struggling to recruit and retain high-quality troops.

Unexpected additional deployments, officers said yesterday, could be the final straw for soldiers and Marines who have already deployed to Iraq two or three or even four times.

"I appeal to you to stay with us a while longer," Gen. James T. Conway, commandant of the Marine Corps, urged a crowd of Marines assembled at an airbase near Baghdad recently. "Right now the country is in crisis. We are going to need good, strong mid-level leadership. This is truly a long war, and if you win, the war is shorter."

But the greater concern of senior officers is getting caught between a commander-in-chief bent on a long-term strategy in Iraq, and a public and Congress impatient for a conclusion to U.S. involvement.

"We are working under two timelines here: what we need to get the job done and what a democratic society will allow us to get the job done," Conway said in a recent interview.

Conway, a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declined to say what advice he had given Bush on the Iraq war plan. But he said that "I don't think a surge, a number of additional battalions, is what they need" in Anbar province. What they need, he said, is more time.

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The plan outlined by Bush would put an Army battalion into each of at least 23 critical districts in Baghdad, a deployment scheme that would leave roughly seven uncommitted battalions as a strategic reserve or quick-reaction force.

At present, there are 15 U.S. battalions in Baghdad, a number that Pentagon officials said was insufficient to secure the city's most violent areas.

Altogether, there are 13 Army brigades and two Marine regimental combat teams in Iraq, each with between 3,500 and 5,000 soldiers or Marines organized into three battalions per brigade or combat team. In addition, there are roughly 70,000 American military support personnel stationed in Iraq to run air operations and logistics, medical and communications support.

Seize and hold

The idea, according to Kagan, is to quickly seize control of and occupy the most critical neighborhoods in Baghdad and then pump in reconstruction money. Eventually, he said at a news briefing last week, the central government of al-Maliki will be able to convince the Shiite militias that their operations are unnecessary.

"This is not going to happen quickly," said Kagan, "This is a surge that has to last, in my view, at least 18 months. It will take us all of 2007 to get Baghdad under control."

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As Bush spoke last night, the Pentagon announced that a Maryland soldier, Spc. Eric T. Caldwell, 22, of Salisbury, was killed in Iraq on Jan. 7 by enemy small-arms fire.

At least 3,017 Americans have been killed in the war, with 22,834 wounded in battle so far, a cost that will certainly rise in the months ahead.

david.wood@baltsun.com


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