A subdued President Bush, presenting his long-awaited new blueprint for Iraq, acknowledged for the first time Wednesday that his previous strategy had failed and said that averting defeat required more than 20,000 additional American troops and a different relationship with the government in Baghdad.
In a striking concession, Bush said that the last year in Iraq had turned out to be the opposite of what he had expected -- an explosion of sectarian violence instead of growing national unity among the Iraqi people and a winding-down of American military involvement.
He said the reversal occurred in part because there had not been enough troops to provide security in Iraqi neighborhoods -- a strong criticism of his policy since the earliest days of the invasion.
“Where mistakes have been made, the responsibility rests with me,” Bush said. “It is clear that we need to change our strategy in Iraq.”
Outlining his new approach in a somber address from the White House library, Bush acknowledged the growing opposition to the war, saying: “The situation in Iraq is unacceptable to the American people, and it is unacceptable to me.”
But he said that the response should be to increase, not decrease, the U.S. commitment to stabilize the troubled country that the U.S. military invaded more than three years ago. “If we increase our support at this crucial moment and help the Iraqis break the current cycle of violence, we can hasten the day our troops begin coming home,” Bush said.
Bush did not say how long the increase would last. Military strategists have said that anything less than 18 months would probably be ineffective, but Democrats and some Republicans are eager to see troop levels begin to drop before the 2008 campaign season heats up. And administration officials noted that one benchmark the Iraqi government had set for itself was to take charge of security in Baghdad by the end of this year.
“We aren’t putting a time horizon on it. We think that is troublesome,” said a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak for the president.
The government of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki must provide more of its own forces in Baghdad, Bush said, with U.S. troops acting primarily in support. And he said the Iraqi government must end political and sectarian interference with security operations and permit U.S. forces to operate in all areas of the city.
Democrats were nearly unanimous Wednesday in their condemnation of Bush’s plan, comparing it to a Vietnam-type escalation of the war and vowing to oppose it.
“This proposal endangers our national security by placing additional burdens on our already overextended military, thereby making it even more difficult to respond to other crises,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco said in a joint statement.
“While we all want to see a stable and peaceful Iraq, many current and former senior military leaders have made clear that sending more American combat troops does not advance that goal,” they said.
Democrats in both chambers are planning to put forward nonbinding resolutions against the plan, and some Senate Republicans have indicated they might support them.
Most congressional Republicans stood behind the president. But Sen. Gordon H. Smith of Oregon, a past critic of Bush, called the troop buildup “the president’s hail Mary pass.”
Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, a longtime Bush defender and potential presidential candidate in 2008, switched course, saying he believed a “political rather than a military solution” was in order.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a longtime proponent of more troops, commended Bush for acknowledging failure and setting a different course. “I believe that this can succeed; I really do,” McCain said. “I believe it’s not just an increase in troops, it’s a change in strategy.”
The division among Republicans may be a reflection of sinking public support for the war. A USA Today/Gallup poll conducted last week found that 12% of those surveyed supported sending more troops and that 85% favored withdrawing -- either immediately (15%), within 12 months (39%) or over as many years as needed (31%).
A new approach
Bush’s manner and language Wednesday night were more tempered than in previous Iraq speeches; he appeared to be making an effort to seem both conciliatory and confident. The setting for the speech -- the library in the White House basement -- provided a less-formal backdrop than the Oval Office or the Cabinet Room.
The heart of the president’s new approach is to reverse the way American forces are used.
Under the old strategy, most U.S. troops were stationed in fortified bases outside urban areas. They have conducted patrols and trained Iraqi security forces. The Iraqi forces were relied on for most of the security in the cities. Now, U.S. forces will move into urban neighborhoods, many of them combining with Iraqi units -- especially in Baghdad.
“Most of Iraq’s Sunni and Shia want to live together in peace, and reducing the violence in Baghdad will help make reconciliation possible,” Bush said.
The president’s words contained an implicit and unspecified warning to the Maliki government. “I have made it clear to the prime minister and Iraq’s other leaders that America’s commitment is not open-ended,” Bush said.
“If the Iraqi government does not follow through on its promises, it will lose the support of the American people -- and it will lose the support of the Iraqi people.... Now is the time to act. The prime minister understands this.”
At the same time, Bush avoided setting the kind of benchmark deadlines for progress that some of his critics have demanded, and he continued to insist that the United States could not afford to fail in Iraq.
The additional 21,500 U.S. troops would come on top of the 132,000 now in Iraq. To pay for the buildup and an accompanying economic program, senior administration officials said, Bush is likely to seek an additional $5.6 billion in a supplemental spending request submitted apart from the 2008 budget proposal he is expected to give Congress on Feb. 5.
Although the troop numbers are slightly lower than some proponents of a buildup have advocated, those who have backed a larger force said they were cautiously optimistic, noting that the numbers of individual Army brigades and Marine regiments being sent were largely in line with their recommendations.
Bush will send five Army brigades to Baghdad, and the equivalent of one Marine regiment to Al Anbar. Retired Army Gen. Jack Keane, an influential backer of the buildup, had recommended five Army brigades and two Marine regiments.
“We were very careful to focus on the number of brigades, and that’s what to look for,” said Frederick W. Kagan, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute who co-wrote an Iraq strategy with Keane that the White House largely embraced.
Military officials say that the tactical changes that are to accompany the troop increase are, in many ways, more important.
Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, the outgoing Middle East commander, has resisted increasing the visibility of U.S. forces in Baghdad, arguing that it would inflame Iraqi civilians and prevent Iraqi forces from taking on the security burden themselves.
But that approach is judged to have failed: Iraqi units proved unable to impose order. Violence and disorder escalated disastrously.
Now, a senior administration official said, battalion-sized Army units -- about 400 to 600 troops each -- will fan out across Baghdad districts and team up with Iraqi forces in an effort to stifle the violence and open the way for reconstruction and economic aid. This approach is closely associated with counterinsurgency strategies developed by Army Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the incoming commander in Iraq.
A year ago, Bush delivered a series of speeches outlining his strategy for victory in Iraq. And until Wednesday night, he had continued to speak optimistically about the course of the war.
But in documents supporting Bush’s new approach, the White House detailed a series of assumptions about Iraq that had gone awry. For example, it conceded that security must precede economic and political gains rather than insisting that political progress demonstrated by the election of the Maliki government would bring security. Officials also acknowledged that Iraqis were “increasingly disillusioned” by the efforts of the U.S.-led coalition.
The reliance Bush is placing on Maliki reflects the public support he has given the Iraqi prime minister for months -- but runs contrary to the private opinion expressed in a classified memorandum written by the White House national security advisor, Stephen Hadley, and leaked in November just before Bush and Maliki met in Amman, Jordan. The memo questioned Maliki’s competence and intentions.
Administration officials also sought to find parallels between Bush’s new course and proposals developed by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, which concluded in December that the situation in Iraq was deteriorating and that the U.S. should move toward withdrawal.
However, while acknowledging problems, Bush specifically rejected withdrawal.
‘The wrong message’
Leon E. Panetta, a member of the panel, said Bush’s speech “sends the wrong message to Iraqis” by providing increased military support without assurances that the Iraqis will stand behind their word.
“We have seen surges in ’04, ’05, and the most recent in August ’06 -- and every time, the Iraqis have not kept their side of the bargain. The time has come to make very clear that there is a price to be paid if they fail to do what they promise,” Panetta said.
Bush acknowledged that many might wonder why this effort would succeed when others had failed.
“Well, here are the differences,” Bush said. “This time, we will have the force levels we need to hold the areas that have been cleared. In earlier operations, political and sectarian interference prevented Iraqi and American forces from going into neighborhoods that are home to those fueling the sectarian violence. This time ... Prime Minister Maliki has pledged that political or sectarian interference will not be tolerated.”
The White House announced that it will remobilize units of the Army National Guard to help sustain the buildup, a potentially controversial move that will force Guard brigades into second tours in Iraq. Until now, Pentagon policy has required Guard units to deploy overseas only once every six years.
According to a Defense official, one new regular Army brigade will go to Baghdad -- a unit of the 82nd Airborne Division, which is already en route to Kuwait -- and deployment of other Army units that were to go this spring will be speeded up.
Bush also called for increasing the overall size of the Army and Marine Corps.
Times staff writers James Gerstenzang and Janet Hook contributed to this report.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Key assumptions then and now
The administration’s Iraq policy was based on assumptions that have proven inaccurate, the White House said Wednesday. President Bush’s new strategy is based on revisions to those initial assumptions:
- The primary challenge is a Sunni-based insurgency.
- The primary challenge is violent extremists from multiple communities; the center is eroding, and sectarianism is sharply increasing.
- Political progress will help defuse the insurgency and dampen levels of violence.
- Though political progress, economic gains, and security are intertwined, political and economic progress are unlikely absent a basic level of security.
- A national compact is within the grasp of Iraqi leaders and will have a meaningful impact on security.
- Effective national reconciliation may or may not take the form of a comprehensive package or deal; it could come about as the product of piecemeal efforts.
- A majority of Iraqis will support the coalition and Iraqi efforts to build a democratic state.
- Iraqis increasingly are disillusioned with coalition efforts.
- The region has a strategic interest in the stabilization of Iraq.
- Many Arab states remain wary of throwing their full support behind the Iraqi government.
- A majority of Iraqis and Iraqi leaders see their interests as best advanced by a unified Iraq.
- Though still committed to a unified Iraq, many Iraqis are also advancing sectarian agendas - as hedging strategies, in pursuit of narrow interests and due to history.
- Dialogue with insurgent groups will help reduce violence.
- Dialogue with insurgents has not improved security and may not produce strategic gains in the current context.
- Iraqi security forces are gaining in strength and in the ability to handle Iraq’s security challenges.
- Many elements of the Iraqi security forces are in the lead but are not yet ready to handle security challenges independently.
Source: “Highlights of the Iraq Strategy Review,” National Security Council
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
More troops, more money
President Bush plans to send 21,500 more U.S. troops to Iraq at a cost of $5.6 billion this year.
U.S. funds pledged to stability and reconstruction in Iraq
- $414 million to help coordinate local reconstruction projects
- $400 million in quick-response funds for teams to do local reconstruction and rebuilding projects
- $350 million for field commanders to quickly improve the daily lives of Iraqis
Sources: White House; the Brookings Institution; Congressional Research Service; Department of Defense; Iraq Study Group report; the Associated Press