Bush not yet giving up on Iraq

United States President George Bush says the enemy in Iraq is ”far from being defeated”, but he vows not to be rushed into adjusting his strategy and is giving little indication that he intends to veer sharply from the direction his war policies have taken.

”We’re not going to give up. The stakes are too high and the consequences too grave,” Bush said after meeting the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Rumsfeld’s designated successor, Robert Gates, at the Pentagon on Wednesday.

There are competing schools of thought inside the military and the administration on whether a short-term increase in US troop strength in Iraq — possibly in the range of 20 000 — would be enough to quell the sectarian warfare in Baghdad.

After a third straight day of soliciting war advice from top military and diplomatic officials, Bush gave no clue as to whether he would include that in his forthcoming plan. Some generals believe it would be too little, too late, in a war that already has claimed more than 2 900 US lives and tens of thousands of Iraqis.

Bush said he is considering a wide range of options he has heard during a week of consultations but is rejecting ideas ”that would lead to defeat”. He said the rejected ideas include ”leaving before the job is done, ideas such as not helping this [Iraqi] government” to function and gain Iraqis’ confidence.

”But one thing people have got to understand is we’ll be headed toward achieving our objectives,” he said. ”And I repeat: if we lose our nerve, if we’re not steadfast in our determination to help the Iraqi government succeed, we will be handing Iraq over to an enemy that would do us harm.”

Public pressure

Bush’s very public effort to recalibrate the war effort comes with growing public pressure generated by the November elections that put Democrats in control of Congress and led to Rumsfeld’s ouster.

The president said he will soon present a ”new way forward” in Iraq, while continuing to support the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose ability to forge a viable governing coalition is questioned privately by some administration officials. He cited ”horrific” violence in Iraq carried out by a ruthless enemy bent on toppling ”this young democracy”.

None of his comments sounded like a prelude to withdrawing substantial numbers of US troops during the coming year, as was recommended by the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan commission that studied war options since March.

A number of administration officials have suggested privately that while Bush has considered the possibility of a short-term troop increase, there is no consensus from the military on the wisdom of surging a large number of additional troops. In fact, few signs are evident that senior military leaders have shifted from their view that adding troops would undercut the incentive for Iraqis to take more responsibility for their own security.

Just last month, the top commander for US forces in the Middle East, General John Abizaid, told the US Congress that while a troop increase of 20 000 could have a short-term positive effect, it could not be sustained because the army and the marine corps simply are stretched too thin to maintain a bigger force there.

Advisers

A parallel possibility under discussion is increasing the number of US troops placed inside Iraqi army and police units as advisers to provide a kind of on-the-job training that the senior military spokesperson in Baghdad, Major General William Caldwell, told reporters on Wednesday is already paying notable dividends.

The military also has pressed the case that any adjustments in troop levels would be fruitless without accompanying improvements on the political and economic fronts, to reconcile the rival sectarian factions and put young people to work.

Internally, the army has been trying to determine how many additional troops could be deployed in Iraq at one time and for how long. So far, according to army officials familiar with the deliberations, the consensus is that only 10 000 to 15 000 troops, up to five brigades, could be added temporarily to the force.

General Peter Schoomaker, the army chief of staff, is arguing that if the US is going to maintain the current troop levels on the war front, either the size of the active-duty army must be increased or the army must be given greater access to National Guard and reserve soldiers, two defence officials said on Wednesday.

Bush has in recent days met Iraq’s Sunni Vice-President, Tariq al-Hashemi, and the leader of the largest Shi’ite bloc in Iraq’s Parliament, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim. Those discussions across Iraq’s ethnic and religious lines come as major partners in the country’s governing coalition are in behind-the-scenes talks to form a new parliamentary bloc and to sideline supporters of the radical Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

Al-Sadr is a vehement opponent of the US military presence and the main patron of al-Maliki. There is discontent in Iraq and within the Bush administration over al-Maliki’s failure to rein in Shi’ite militias and quell raging violence.

No intent to retreat

Bush met for about 90 minutes inside the joint chiefs’ eavesdrop-proof chamber, known as ”the Tank”. Speaking to reporters afterward, he declined to reveal what advice he had received, but he stressed that he wants US troops to know that while the war strategy is being reviewed, there is no intent to retreat.

”Our troops deserve the solid commitment of the commander in chief and our political leaders and the American people,” Bush said. ”You have my unshakable commitment in this important fight to help secure the peace for the long term.”

The White House had initially suggested that Bush would deliver his speech on a new Iraq strategy before Christmas, but he has decided to delay it until early next year.

”I really do want the new secretary of defence to have time to get to know people and hear people and be a part of this deliberation,” Bush said. Gates, a former CIA director, will be sworn in on Monday.

Barry McCaffrey, who was one of three retired army generals who met Bush at the White House on Monday, said in a telephone interview that while he does not know how Bush will alter his military strategy, he worries that the president may opt to send tens of thousands more troops to reinforce Baghdad.

”All of us told the president, ‘Your army is in disastrous shape, its equipment is broken, it’s not prepared to fight another enemy,”’ McCaffrey said. He recommends providing vastly more armoured vehicles, helicopters and other equipment to the Iraqi army, while maintaining the current US troop strength for now. — Sapa-AP

Associated Press writers Lolita C Baldor, Anne Gearan and Anne Plummer Flaherty contributed to this report

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