Top U.S. military commanders in Iraq have decided to recommend a "surge" of fresh American combat forces, eliminating one of the last remaining hurdles to proposals being considered by President Bush for a troop increase, a defense official familiar with the plan said Friday.
The approval of a troop increase plan by top Iraq commanders, including Gen. George W. Casey Jr. and Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, comes days before Bush unveils a new course for the troubled U.S. involvement in Iraq. Bush still must address concerns among some Pentagon officials and overcome opposition from Congress, where many Democrats favor a blue-ribbon commission's recommendation for the gradual withdrawal of combat troops.
But the recommendation by commanders in Iraq is significant because Bush has placed prime importance on their advice. The U.S. command in Iraq decided to recommend an increase of troops several days ago, prior to meetings in Baghdad this week with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, the defense official said.
Gates, who returned to Washington on Friday, will join Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley in meetings with President Bush today at Camp David. White House Press Secretary Dana Perino said the meeting was part of the Iraq strategy review, and Bush was not expected to make a final decision on the administration's new policy.
Commanders have been skeptical of the value of increasing troops, and the decision represents a reversal for Casey, the highest-ranking officer in Iraq. Casey and Gen. John P. Abizaid, the top commander in the Middle East who will step down in March, have long resisted adding troops in Iraq, arguing that it could delay the development of Iraqi security forces and increase anger at the United States in the Arab world.
The defense official said commanders had not determined the exact number of extra troops they would request.
Military officers have debated an increase of about 20,000, about five extra combat brigades. But while some officers think five extra brigades will be difficult to muster, others believe more troops will be required.
"People are warming to the realization that some sort of surge is necessary," said another military official.
The officials spoke on the condition their names not be revealed because Bush has not announced a final decision on his Iraq policy.
Bush recently called for an increase in the overall size of the Army and Marine Corps. But he stressed he had not made a decision on whether to send more troops to Iraq and wanted to speak further with Gates.
Some members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff remain skeptical of a surge, unconvinced that it will yield more positive results than other recent military operations to secure Baghdad or Iraq.
But other military officers have said that a buildup in troops is America's last chance to roll back the sectarian violence, neutralize the insurgency and strengthen the government of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki.
Many military officers maintain that there is no middle ground strategy for Iraq, and that America must either increase the force -- gambling that the military can impose a measure of security on Iraq -- or else begin to withdraw its forces.
Those skeptical about the efficacy of an increase argue that any new troops must be given clear instructions. However, defense officials say the U.S. commanders in Iraq have not settled on what that mission should be, although they are expected to decide before calling up new units.
Gates may have been alluding to that on Friday, when he told reporters he has asked Casey to make specific recommendations on how to improve security in Iraq and to work with Iraqi military leaders to "put flesh on those bones" of a new security plan.
"There is still some work to be done between Gen. Casey and his counterparts in the Iraqi government," Gates said. "But I do expect to give a report to the president on what I have learned and my perceptions."
Some officials remain concerned that the command in Iraq has not drafted a new battle plan or begun to develop new operations. These officials worry that even with extra troops, the American forces will continue using existing tactics, which have failed to stem sectarian violence.
Within the military, some officers favor using a buildup of forces to confront radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr, perhaps by moving forces into Sadr City, the Shiite slum in Baghdad where he has his political base.
Other military leaders say a larger force should be used to improve the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy and take more effective measures to protect Iraqis. These officers favor a plan developed by retired Gen. Jack Keane and Frederick Kagan, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, to use the extra troops to secure mixed Shiite and Sunni neighborhoods where most of the sectarian violence is taking place.
Which mission is selected could determine the size of the troop increase.
"If it is a surge to take on Sadr, that is one size. If it is to do something else, that is another size surge," said the military official.
Iraqi politics would be a key factor in deciding how to use extra U.S. military force. American diplomats are trying to engineer an ouster of Sadr's political faction from the government and are trying to help set up a moderate coalition of Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites that would be more willing to confront Sadr's militias.
The U.S. military now considers forces loyal to Sadr to be the top threat to the security of Iraq.
Sadr controls 30 seats in the Iraqi parliament and six cabinet seats in the current government, although the Sadr loyalists have been boycotting the government in protest of Maliki's meeting with Bush in Jordan in November.
Military officials were dismayed that one of the country's most influential clerics, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, did not immediately back efforts to establish a new coalition government. If Sistani insists that Sadr remain within the Shiite coalition, it would represent a blow to the U.S. goal of marginalizing the radical cleric.
"The goals are tied to the palace intrigue," the military official said. "We are watching them carefully."
A troop buildup has sparse political support, but is backed by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), considered a front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination. Key Democratic lawmakers and some Pentagon officials, however, remain skeptical. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), incoming chairman of the armed services committee, is among those advocating a timetable for withdrawal -- not a buildup of forces.
Several members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff also have expressed reservations. Because the Joint Chiefs are not part of the military's formal chain of command, the recommendation to increase or decrease will go from commanders in Iraq to Gates and then to Bush. But the Joint Chiefs retain an important advisory role.
Gen. James T. Conway, the new commandant of the Marine Corps and a member of the Joint Chiefs, emphasized the drawbacks of adding troops in public comments last week.
"We would fully support, I think, as the Joint Chiefs, the idea of putting more troops into Iraq if there is a solid military reason for doing that, if there is something to be gained," he said. "We do not believe that just adding numbers for the sake of adding numbers -- just thickening the mix -- is necessarily the way to go."
Like Conway, Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff, has said extra troops must be given a clearly defined mission.
"We would not surge without a purpose," Schoomaker said recently. "And that purpose should be measurable."
Conway suggested that adding troops now would mean the military would be less ready to deploy in the future.
"You better make sure your timing is right," he said. "Because if you commit the reserve for something other than a decisive win or to stave off defeat, then you have essentially shot your bolt."
Times staff writers Peter Spiegel and James Gerstenzang contributed to this report.