As President Bush weighs new policy options for Iraq, strong support has coalesced in the Pentagon behind a military plan to "double down" in the country with a substantial buildup in American troops, an increase in industrial aid and a major combat offensive against Muqtada Sadr, the radical Shiite leader impeding development of the Iraqi government.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff will present their assessment and recommendations to Bush at the Pentagon today. Military officials, including some advising the chiefs, have argued that an intensified effort may be the only way to get the counterinsurgency strategy right and provide a chance for victory.
The approach overlaps somewhat a course promoted by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz). But the Pentagon proposals add several features, including the confrontation with Sadr, a possible renewed offensive in the Sunni stronghold of Al Anbar province, a large Iraqi jobs program and a proposal for a long-term increase in the size of the military.
Such an option would appear to satisfy Bush's demand for a strategy focused on victory rather than disengagement. It would disregard key recommendations and warnings of the Iraq Study Group, however, and provide little comfort for those fearful of a long, open-ended U.S. commitment in the country. Only 12% of Americans support a troop increase, whereas 52% prefer a fixed timetable for withdrawal, a Los Angeles Times/ Bloomberg poll has found.
"I think it is worth trying," a defense official said. "But you can't have the rhetoric without the resources. This is a double down" -- the gambling term for upping a bet.
Such a proposal, military officials and experts caution, would be a gamble. Any chance of success probably would require major changes in the Iraqi government, they said. U.S. Embassy officials would have to help usher into power a new coalition in Baghdad that was willing to confront the militias. And the strategy also would require more U.S. spending to increase the size of the U.S. military and for an Iraqi jobs program.
Defense officials interviewed for this article requested anonymity because the deliberations over the Pentagon's recommendations were continuing and had not been made public.
"You are dealing with an inherently difficult undertaking," said Stephen Biddle, a military analyst called to the White House this week to advise Bush. "That doesn't mean we should withdraw. But no one should go into this thinking if we double the size of the military, the result will be victory. Maybe, but maybe not. You are buying the opportunity to enter a lottery."
The wild card in the Pentagon planning is Robert M. Gates, due to be sworn in Monday as Defense secretary. Gates had breakfast Tuesday with Bush and will participate, along with outgoing Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, in today's meetings.
Bush is collecting recommendations from his administration this week as he crafts his strategy for Iraq. But some defense officials say Gates may seek more time to weigh other options. And before endorsing an increase in combat forces, Gates may press commanders in Iraq for assurances that U.S. forces can hold off an escalation of the sectarian civil war.
"This is the big moment," said the defense official. "It is enormously important for the new secretary of Defense to revisit what the overall objective is ... and what is needed to achieve that."
Some military officers believe that Iraq has become a test of wills, and that the U.S. needs to show insurgents and sectarian militias that it is willing to stay and fight. "I've come to the realization we need to go in, in a big way," said an Army officer. "You have to have an increase in troops.... We have to convince the enemy we are serious and we are coming in harder."
The size of the troop increase the Pentagon will recommend is unclear. One officer suggested an increase of about 40,000 forces would be required, but other officials said such a number was unrealistic. There are about 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.
The administration has spent about $495 billion for Iraq and terrorism-related efforts since 2001, including $70 billion so far in fiscal 2007. It is planning to request as much as an additional $150 billion to fund the war effort through the rest the budget year.
The problem with any sort of surge is that it would require an eventual drop-off in 2008, unless the president was willing to take the politically unpopular move of remobilizing the National Guard and sending reserve combat units back to Iraq.
But military officials are taking a close look at a proposal advanced by Frederick W. Kagan, a former West Point Military Academy historian, to combine a surge with a quick buildup of the Marines and the Army. That could allow new units to take the place of the brigades sent to Iraq to augment the current force.
"It is essential for the president to couple any recommendation of a significant surge in Iraq with the announcement that he will increase permanently the size of the Army and the Marines," Kagan said.
Kagan, who plans to release a preliminary report on his proposal Thursday, said he had discussed his ideas with people in the government. Although the military has had trouble meeting recruiting goals, Kagan said Army officials believed they could recruit at least an extra 20,000 soldiers a year. The Army missed its recruiting targets in 2005 but met this year's goal.
The troop-increase strategy faces substantial hurdles. Although both Democrats and Republicans have voiced support for increasing the overall size of the ground forces, key Democratic leaders are opposed to sending additional forces to Iraq.
Military leaders are also aware that the public has grown impatient. With a majority of the country favoring a timetable for withdrawal, a strategy to increase the number of troops in Iraq would have to include a plan to buy the military more time.
An increase in U.S. forces is not universally popular in the military. Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, the top U.S. commander for the Middle East, has long argued that increasing the size of the force would be counterproductive, angering the very people the U.S. was trying to help.
Outside the Pentagon, in other corners of government, officials are skeptical that an increase in military power will end sectarian violence. James Dobbins, a former U.S. diplomat and advisor to the Iraq Study Group, said many Iraqis believed that U.S. forces put them in danger, rather than improving security.
"The American troop presence is wildly unpopular in Iraq," Dobbins said. "Any effort to double our bet will lead to ever more catastrophic results."
Some officers argue that the U.S. needs to show substantial progress in decreasing the violence and instability in Iraq before the 2008 presidential election. But other officers and analysts note that a comprehensive counterinsurgency plan will take years, not months, to work.
"You do not want to withdraw your troops until you achieve your mission," said Andrew Krepinevich, a counterinsurgency expert and director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. "We are going to be in Iraq for a long, long time. It is going to be decades before Iraq can be left to its own devices without descending into a civil war."
In a meeting with reporters in Baghdad on Tuesday, Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, commander of day-to-day operations in Iraq, renewed his call for a New Deal-style public works program to help put Iraqi fighters to work.
"If people get work, honest work, they don't have to join militias in order to provide for their families," Chiarelli said.
Military officers believe a confrontation with Sadr is inevitable. Bob Killebrew, a retired colonel and defense strategist, said the U.S. military had four to six months to take on Sadr, whose Al Mahdi militia is growing faster than the Iraqi army.
"We have to deal somehow with the militias, and Sadr in particular; he is rapidly becoming the armed power in Iraq," Killebrew said. "Our conventional forces, not advisors, will have to team with the Iraqi army and neutralize the Mahdi army and the other militias. If we don't do that, everything else we are talking about is hot air."
Killebrew does not believe a substantial increase in the U.S. combat force is necessary and generally favors the approach of the Iraq Study Group, arguing that the realistic strategic options are limited to advising the Iraqis or withdrawing altogether.
A number of counterinsurgency experts and retired military officers say the military should not be too quick to dismiss the group's proposals.
Kalev Sepp, an instructor at the Naval Postgraduate School, said that the U.S. had demonstrated that many commanders simply did not understand how to mount effective, long-term counterinsurgency strategies.
Increasing the size of the force, Sepp said, will mean that U.S. forces continue to focus on killing insurgents, not training Iraqis. "That kind of approach is still tied to the idea that attrition, of just killing enough of our opponents, is going to get us to success," Sepp said.
But inside the Pentagon, the study group's overall proposals are widely seen as a withdrawal plan -- and a recipe for massive ethnic cleansing in Iraq. Some officers believe that because the U.S. invasion unleashed the ethnic strains, the blood spilled from larger-scale civil war would be on America's hands.
"If you still think you can keep it together," said the defense official, "you have to stay after it."
Times staff writers Peter Spiegel in Washington and Solomon Moore in Baghdad contributed to this report.