WASHINGTON -- The Army general in charge of day-to-day operations in Iraq said yesterday that with all combat troops now in place that were deployed in the Bush administration's buildup of forces, the U.S. military will more forcefully push a new offensive to root out insurgents in and around Baghdad.
Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno insisted that the new push differs from previous assaults against guerrillas in the capital because the higher troop numbers will allow the U.S. and Iraqi military forces to occupy neighborhoods once they are cleared of insurgents and to protect civilians as the areas are rebuilt.
"With the amount of forces that we have now, we will be able to stay in these areas . . . where we've had either no or very little capability to do this previously," Odierno said from Iraq through a video conference with reporters at the Pentagon.
Parts of the new offensive have been described by military officials as it got under way this week. By formally unveiling the overall strategy yesterday, however, Odierno appeared to differentiate it from military actions taken over the previous four months. For the first time, he said, all forces devoted to the so-called surge were taking part in a coordinated offensive throughout Iraq's midsection.
"We are beyond a surge of forces, and we are now into a surge of operations," Odierno said.
Meanwhile yesterday, the military said a U.S. soldier was killed in fighting in southwest Baghdad, bringing to at least 3,546 the number of American forces killed in Iraq since the war began, according to icasualties.org, an advocacy group that tracks military deaths. Military officials said the death occurred Thursday but gave no other details.
The new offensive, which will run throughout the summer, includes the highly publicized move of 10,000 U.S. troops into the northeastern province of Diyala and its capital, Baqouba, where sectarian violence has risen as insurgents fleeing Baghdad and western Anbar province have poured in. But Odierno said the operation involves all 20 brigades in Iraq, including five brigades - about 17,500 soldiers - inside Baghdad and at least that many ringing the capital.
Ever since President Bush announced his new security plan in January, U.S. defense officials have insisted that any attempt to evaluate the buildup's effectiveness was premature, because the five additional combat brigades Bush ordered to Iraq would take months to arrive.
Even as the troops arrived in place and the offensive began, however, Pentagon officials continued to debate how long the increased levels would be needed. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has expressed the hope that an evaluation of the plan in September would reflect sufficient progress to allow troops to begin returning home before the end of the year.
But Odierno is known to think differently. Yesterday, he again suggested that the surge might need to be extended into next spring. He noted that key to the operation's success would be the ability of Iraqi forces to take over the task of securing and rebuilding Baghdad neighborhoods, and said he did not believe they would be fully capable to perform those duties for several months.
"I think if everything goes the way it's going now, there's a potential that by the spring we would be able to reduce forces and Iraqi security forces could take over," Odierno said, adding that only after such transitions would a decision be made on reducing U.S. troop levels.
Peter Spiegel and Tina Susman write for the Los Angeles Times.