Sunday, January 07, 2007

Critics Say 'Surge' Is More of The Same

President Bush is putting the final touches on his new Iraq policy amid growing skepticism inside and outside the administration that the emerging package of extra troops, economic assistance and political benchmarks for the Baghdad government will make any more than a marginal difference in stabilizing the country.

Washington's debate over Iraq will intensify this week as Bush lays out his plans, probably on Wednesday or Thursday, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other administration officials face tough questions from Democrats in congressional hearings.

Although officials said the president has yet to settle on an exact figure of new troops, senior military leaders and commanders are deeply worried that a "surge" of as many as five brigades, or 20,000 troops, in Iraq and Kuwait would tax U.S. ground forces already stretched to the breaking point -- and may still prove inadequate to quell sectarian violence and the Sunni insurgency.

Some senior U.S. officials think it could even backfire.

"There is a lot of concern that this won't work," said one military official not authorized to speak publicly about the debate at the Pentagon.

Meanwhile, the political and economic ideas under consideration all appear to be variations on initiatives that U.S. and Iraqi authorities have proved unable to implement successfully since the 2003 invasion or have tried and found wanting, according to former U.S. officials and experts on reconstructing war-torn countries.

Many officials at the State and Defense departments also doubt that the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is capable of making the necessary reforms, given its track record of promising but not delivering since taking power in May and despite Maliki's assurances in a speech yesterday that he would hold Iraqis accountable for implementing a new Baghdad security plan.

A sense that the White House is preparing more of the same is generating deep skepticism among Democrats in Congress, many of whom have signaled strongly in recent days that they would resist sending additional troops to Iraq.

And although Republicans say they are open to what Bush proposes this week, they are also asking much more pointed questions about the premises of the White House Iraq policy.

Administration officials are pushing lawmakers and the public to withhold judgment until they see all the elements of the new Iraq policy. Bush consulted with advisers yesterday, and White House speechwriters were working on this week's address. There are signs that there could be some surprises as the administration's debate moves from the staff level to the final deliberations of the president and his closest advisers.

Responding to skepticism about Maliki within some parts of the administration, the White House may make a deeper involvement in Iraq contingent on Maliki cracking down on militias and death squads while also undertaking bold political initiatives and developing a wider economic plan, U.S. officials say. The addition of new U.S. troops, for example, may be phased over several months and conditioned on Iraq following through on promised political reforms, the officials said.

One senior White House official said yesterday that the president considers the skepticism of lawmakers and the public "warranted" and that Bush will not "commit resources to a strategy that is not working." But the official said Bush was heartened by recent promises and plans from Maliki, citing the prime minister's speech in Baghdad yesterday in which he pledged a crackdown on sectarian militias, with U.S. assistance.

The official said U.S. and Iraqi leaders have been refining a new Iraqi security plan, first discussed when Bush and Maliki met in Jordan in November, in which Iraqi forces would take the lead with Americans in support. "It is not just rhetoric," the official said of Maliki. "He is actually putting forward specific plans and making different commitments than he has in the past." Speaking on the condition of anonymity because the president has not settled on a final plan, the official said Bush expects "a different result" from that of previous security plans.

Others have doubts. "I don't know that the Iraqi government has ever demonstrated ability to lead the country, and we shouldn't be surprised," said retired Army Lt. Gen. Jay M. Garner, who was the first U.S. official in charge of postwar Baghdad. "You'll never find, in my lifetime, one man that all the Iraqis will coalesce around." Iraqis are too divided among sectarian, ethnic and tribal loyalties, he said, and their loyalties are regional, not national.

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