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U.S. Military Weighs Troop Increase for Iraq

Times Staff Writer

The U.S. military commander overseeing the war in Iraq is considering sending in more troops if violence worsens sharply, senior defense officials said Monday after two days of clashes between American troops and a cleric’s militia left eight U.S. soldiers and dozens of Iraqis dead.

With the planned June 30 transfer of power to an Iraqi interim government fast approaching, President Bush warned that violence could increase but insisted that the hand-over would take place as scheduled.

However, at least one Defense Department official and several top lawmakers -- including presumed Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry -- suggested that the date might be premature. Confronted with the Shiite Muslim uprising in Baghdad, Najaf and other cities Sunday, Army Gen. John Abizaid requested a contingency plan in which reinforcements would join the 135,000 U.S. troops already in Iraq, a senior department official said on condition of anonymity.

Defense officials emphasized that Abizaid, who as head of the U.S. Central Command directs American forces in Iraq, believes the current number of troops is sufficient to quell the violence between coalition forces and the militia known as the Al Mahdi army.

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There are 15,000 more U.S. troops in Iraq now than in the fall. Thousands more troops are in neighboring Kuwait.

“Given the events of this weekend and the obvious potential for more demonstrations or more violence, we have asked the staff to at least take a look and see what forces are available out there in a quick-response mode, in the event that they should be needed if there was a widespread move in that direction,” the senior official told reporters at the Pentagon via teleconference.

“But we don’t believe that that’s going to occur, and we don’t believe that we’re going to need any additional forces from the United States.”

Since the earliest days of the occupation, there has been debate over whether the U.S. has enough troops in Iraq. Many senior Army officials have said privately that more are needed, although few have said so publicly for fear of drawing the wrath of the Pentagon’s civilian leaders, who insist the current numbers are adequate.

The uprising in Najaf, Baghdad’s Sadr City neighborhood and other cities marked an apparent “power grab” by a “relatively minor cleric,” the senior official said, referring to 30-year-old Shiite leader Muqtader Sadr.

Bush warned Monday that more frequent attacks on U.S. troops and civilians were likely as June 30 approached.

“My judgment is that the closer we come to the deadline, the more likely it is people will challenge our will,” he told reporters in Charlotte, N.C., where he delivered a speech on the economy and met in private with family members of Army Spc. Christopher K. Hill, a Fontana native killed in Fallouja on March 11. “In other words, it provides a convenient excuse to attack.”

The president denounced Sadr as “one person who is deciding that rather than allow democracy to flourish, he’s going to exercise force. And we just can’t let it stand.”

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Central Command leaders are preparing for a “worst-case scenario” of a civil war. In that case, the official said, the U.S.-led occupation administration might be compelled to postpone the handoff to an Iraqi government.

“Certainly things could go to all-out, full-up civil war, or something like that, and we would have to -- somebody would have to relook whether turning it over to the Iraqis is a wise thing at that particular time or whether it would need to be delayed,” the senior official said. “But we just don’t see that happening right now.”

Bush dismissed that prospect, saying the scheduled date for transferring sovereignty “remains the same” despite suggestions by leading lawmakers, including Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that a June hand-over might be premature.

Kerry (D-Mass.), citing a “deteriorating situation” in Iraq, said the U.S. “can’t allow this to continue,” and he questioned the wisdom of turning over sovereignty June 30 if conditions are as they are now.

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Charging that “the persistently stubborn approach of this administration is costing Americans lives,” Kerry said the U.S. goal should be “stability, not the date.”

Reviving the contention that the date was selected to boost Bush’s reelection chances, Kerry added, “You should not have a date that has anything whatsoever to do with the election in the United States.”

Kerry’s fellow Democratic senator from Massachusetts, Edward M. Kennedy, heaped criticism on Bush’s war policy Monday, calling Iraq “George Bush’s Vietnam.” Kennedy said the war was based on “false and misleading arguments.”

Bush insisted he would “stay the course.”

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“The date remains firm,” he said.

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Times staff writers Edwin Chen in Charlotte and Maria L. La Ganga and Ashleigh Collins in Washington contributed to this report.

--- UNPUBLISHED NOTE ---

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In stories after April 9, 2004, Shiite cleric Muqtader Sadr is correctly referred to as Muqtada Sadr.

--- END NOTE ---


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