Global Policy Forum

Generals in Iraq Consider Options for More Troops


By David E. Sanger and Douglas Jehl

New York Times
April 6, 2004

American commanders in Iraq are developing contingency plans to send more American forces to the country if the situation worsens, and administration officials said Monday that the new surge of violence by Shiites represented a worrying challenge to their plans to turn over power in less than 90 days.

President Bush, speaking in Charlotte, N.C., said he intended to stick to the June 30 date for giving control of the country to an interim Iraqi government, even as he conceded that the new government's structure had not been settled. He vowed that the violence — which he said was being instigated by Moktada al-Sadr, a young Shiite cleric — would be put down, saying, "We just can't let it stand."

Mr. Bush appeared eager on Monday to dispel any thought that the new wave of attacks on American forces, in which Shiites as well as Sunnis have now joined, would shake his resolve. "If they think that we're not sincere about staying the course, many people will not continue to take a risk toward — take the risk toward freedom and democracy," he told reporters.

The weekend of violence — which included the deaths of eight American soldiers in the Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City — did not appear to touch off crisis meetings in Washington. The president was campaigning and throwing out the first pitch at an opening-day game in St. Louis. His national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, was preparing for testimony on Thursday before the commission looking into the Sept. 11 attacks. One of her chief advisers on Iraq strategy was in Baghdad. One official said there were "many conference calls, but no big decisions."

British officials said Monday, though, that Prime Minister Tony Blair was expected to meet with Mr. Bush in Washington next week and that the meeting was expected to be dominated by concerns over Iraq.

Senior military and White House officials said the attacks by Mr. Sadr's forces did not represent a full-scale Shiite uprising, or portend a broader civil war. Still, a senior military official described the violence led by Mr. Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army, as part of "a power grab at a very difficult time," and one that administration officials said could interfere with their efforts to reduce the number of American troops as the presidential election approached.

Gen. John P. Abizaid, the senior commander in the Middle East, has asked for contingency plans for increasing the number of troops in Iraq. No decision has been made to supplement the 134,000 troops now there, and White House officials said it was unclear whether such a move would help the situation. The task of disarming and disbanding Mr. Sadr's followers, military officials said Monday, could be complicated by concern that it might incite further rebellion among Iraqi Shiites. Despite those concerns, though, American forces in Iraq stepped up their confrontations on Monday, both with the young cleric and in the restive Falluja area.

Hundreds of thousands of Shiite pilgrims will be traveling in the days ahead to Iraq's holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, and senior military officials said the United States wanted to avoid "doing something stupid that would put more people into the camp of anticoalition forces." Democrats, led by Mr. Bush's presumptive opponent in the presidential race, Senator John Kerry, seized the moment to question the underlying logic of Mr. Bush's Iraq policy.

"We can't allow this to continue," Mr. Kerry said, meeting with reporters on Monday. "There has to be a political, diplomatic solution which, regrettably, this administration seems stubbornly determined to avoid."

He called the absence of Arab neighbors as part of the stabilization force "staggering," saying, "All have a major stake in not having a failed Iraqi state, no matter how they feel about our getting there."

"I think the president owes it to the American people to explain who we're turning over sovereignty to and how on June 30th and what is the security plan for after June 30th," Mr. Kerry concluded.

But he left it to Senator Edward M. Kennedy, his old friend and occasional campaign surrogate, to compare the events in Iraq to the war in Southeast Asia four decades ago. While Mr. Kerry said he would not make analogies to past conflicts, Mr. Kennedy said, "Iraq is George Bush's Vietnam, and this country needs a new president."

In fact, there were hints that the administration might be reconsidering the feasibility of the June 30 transfer of sovereignty. L. Paul Bremer III, the civilian administrator in Iraq, had been scheduled to return to Washington this week for a consultation with administration officials and lawmakers, but on Monday evening, those plans appeared all but canceled. Mr. Bremer was too busy managing the response to the new violence, officials said.

Moreover, it was unclear what he would say about administration policy to lawmakers who made it clear over the weekend that they planned to grill him on the role of the United Nations and the plans to improve security during and after the June 30 transfer. Mr. Bush himself sounded less than fully definitive about the transfer date when first asked about it on Monday, initially telling reporters that "the intention is to make sure the deadline remains the same — I believe we can transfer authority by June 30." But he ended by saying, "The date remains firm."

White House officials say the Iraqis themselves have taken that date as an article of faith. "They expect it," a senior official said, "and I don't know what the reaction would be if it changed. That's why we have every expectation of meeting the deadline."

Still, Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, the senior Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, joined a prominent Republican, Senator Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, in calling on the administration to leave the door open to the possible postponement of the transfer if the situation worsens.

In a telephone interview on Monday, Mr. Levin said he had spoken to Republicans as well as Democrats who shared his view that the administration should be open to delaying the transfer, particularly if prominent Iraqis outside the current Governing Council favored such a postponement. "I don't want to see President Bush in a position where flexibility will be seen as a political defeat," Mr. Levin said.

A senior military officer from the United States Central Command, who spoke by telephone to reporters at the Pentagon, sought to play down General Abizaid's request for contingency plans for more troops, and declined to say how many might be needed.

"In my view, as we look at right now, we've got adequate forces to do the job," the officer said. But he said General Abizaid had asked his staff to consider what forces might be available, including those capable of being deployed fairly rapidly to Iraq, "given the events of the weekend and the obvious potential for more demonstrations and more violence."

The officer said marines had put a cordon around the restive Sunni city of Falluja, in preparation for actions aimed at killing or arresting those responsible for the killing and mutilation there last week of four American contractors. But from a military standpoint, the senior officer said, that violence was "not nearly as troublesome as the Shiite demonstrations that have occurred."

The officer took issue with news reports that described the violence by Mr. Sadr's forces as an uprising. But he said the attacks in Sadr City represented "a great deal of violence by an outlaw militia group."

The officer made clear that American officials were concerned about inciting more violence, particularly with the Shiite holiday approaching. "The last thing we want to do is to go into a mosque and take significant action there," he said, adding that any effort to arrest Mr. Sadr would be coordinated with Iraqi policy and civil defense forces.

The officer described the Mahdi Army as a force of about 3,000 followers of Mr. Sadr, and said no more than 10,000 Shiites in all had taken part in the weekend of protests. He said that they would be disbanded, but that American forces would do so "deliberately" rather than rushing into action that might widen anti-American sentiment.

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