WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- The top U.S. commander in Iraq said yesterday that he had recommended deploying fewer than half the number of additional U.S. troops that President Bush plans to send to Baghdad and insurgent strongholds in western Iraq.
Gen. George Casey, testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee on his nomination to become Army chief of staff, said he asked for only two brigades because he was reluctant "to bring one more American soldier into Iraq than was necessary to accomplish the mission."
Now, Casey said, he supports the president's decision to deploy five brigades, a total of 21,500 additional troops, because it would give the incoming commander of coalition troops, Gen. David Petraeus, the flexibility he would need to help quiet the situation.
"In my mind, the other three brigades should be called forward after an assessment has been made on the ground," Casey said.
In more than four hours of testimony, Casey tried to explain how he came to support the president's plan after having opposed an increase in the troop level for much of his 2 1/2 years in Iraq.
He also told the senators that members of the sectarian militias responsible for much of the strife have been melting into the background as the troop buildup in Baghdad nears.
The four-star general, who is closely identified with the administration's troubled Iraq strategy, faced tough questioning from both sides of the aisles. Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, was perhaps the most critical of Casey's time in command in Iraq, saying the general had made "unrealistically rosy" predictions.
"While I do not in any way question your honor, your patriotism or your service to our country," McCain said, "I do question some of the decisions and judgments you've made over the past 2 1/2 years as commander of multinational forces in Iraq. During that time, things have gotten markedly and progressively worse, and the situation in Iraq can now best be described as dire and deteriorating."
Casey, who is expected to win confirmation, acknowledged that progress in Iraq has been slower than he expected. At several points during his tenure in Iraq, he predicted that Iraqi security forces would soon take the lead.
Yesterday, he said that the 325,000-man Iraqi army and police force are still heavily dependent on U.S. troops and that Baghdad has been overwhelmed by sectarian fighting since the bombing of the al-Askari shrine in Samarra nearly a year ago.
Casey said he now believes that sending in more U.S. troops is appropriate because Iraqi political leaders have asked for assistance and seem willing to make the decisions necessary to help their country end its turmoil.
Aamer Madhani writes for the Chicago Tribune.