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Commander suggests buildup last through Feb.

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- The day-to-day commander of U.S. forces in Iraq has recommended that the heightened American troop levels there be maintained through February, military officials said yesterday.

The White House has never said exactly how long it intends the troop buildup to last, but military officials say the increased American force level will begin declining in August unless additional units are sent or more units are held over.

The confidential recommendation by the commander, Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, reflects the military's new counterinsurgency doctrine, which puts a premium on sustained efforts to win over a wary population. It also stems from the complex logistics of deploying the five additional combat brigades that are being sent to Iraq as part of what the White House calls a "surge" of forces.

In fact, for now, it is really more of a trickle, since only two of the five brigades are in Iraq. The U.S. military is stretched so thin that the last of the brigades is not expected to begin operations until June.

In its effort to blunt congressional opposition to the new strategy, the Bush administration has cited what it calls early signs of progress, including a reduction in sectarian killings in Baghdad. But military officials say it is far too soon to draw any firm conclusions.

President Bush has often said he will listen closely to advice from commanders in the field in making decisions about strategy and manpower in Iraq, but Pentagon officials emphasized yesterday that no decision to extend the "surge" had been made.

Military officials said Odierno had provided his assessment to his superior, Gen. David H. Petraeus, who took over as the top American commander in Iraq earlier this year. Petraeus has yet to make a formal recommendation to the Pentagon.

But the question of how long the buildup should last has already became the focus of major concern for the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.

"We're looking, as we should, at each of the three possibilities: hold what you have, come down, or plus up if you need to," Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, told reporters.

Pace said "early data points" showed that sectarian attacks were slightly down since the Baghdad operation began. But he said the increase in car bombs suggested that al-Qaida in Mesopotamia was trying to incite further hostilities with this method.

When the Bush administration announced its troop buildup in January, it said it was sending 21,500 troops to Baghdad and Anbar province. Since then, the Pentagon has said that as many as 7,000 additional support troops would also be deployed, including 2,200 additional military police.

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