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Search for Iraq strategy produces more questions than answers

by Jim MannionFri Dec 15, 8:30 AM ET

President George W. Bush's high profile search for a winning strategy in Iraq is generating more confusion than clarity as he sorts through contradictory advice on a new way forward.

Bush appeared to throw up his hands after a Pentagon meeting Wednesday with the military chiefs and the future and current defense secretaries, putting off a decision on what to do about Iraq until early next year.

"I'm not going to be rushed into making a difficult decision, a necessary decision, to say to our troops, 'We're going to give you the tools necessary to succeed and a strategy to help you succeed,'" he told reporters.

The debate over Iraq options is coming at a time when the chiefs of both the army and marine corps are warning that they do not have enough troops to sustain the current level of effort in Iraq and at the same time meet other contingencies.

General Peter Schoomaker, the army chief of staff, said Thursday the pace of deployments will break the active army unless it expands and has greater access to its reserve forces, a politically sensitive issue.

The army's stretched position severely limits Bush's options in Iraq, which range from a short-term surge of US troops to quickly shifting the mission in Iraq from combat to primarily training Iraqis.

Bush said one reason he was delaying a decision was to give Robert Gates, who is to be sworn in a defense secretary on Monday, time to evaluate the situation.

Gates, a former member of a bipartisan panel that conducted a nine month review of Iraq strategy, said in his confirmation hearings there were "no new ideas on Iraq" but he wanted to talk to US commanders before making up his mind.

The Los Angeles Times reported on Wednesday that support was coalescing within the Pentagon for "doubling up" in Iraq with a substantial buildup of US troops coupled with an offensive against Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr.

The Washington Post, however, on Thursday cited unidentified officials as saying the military chiefs were recommending changing the mission from fighting insurgents and militias to supporting Iraqi troops and hunting terrorists.

The Post said half the 15 combat brigades in Iraq could be assigned to train and advise Iraqi units while the others would be pulled back from the cities and assigned to rapid reaction, border protection and counter-terrorism missions.

The Iraqi government, meanwhile, has its own plan to put Iraqi security forces in charge in Baghdad -- the most important battleground in the country, according to US commanders.

Under the Iraqis' plan, some US forces would be embedded as advisers to Iraqi units, but the rest would be moved to the outskirts of the capital to keep insurgents and suicide bombers out.

Pentagon spokespersons refused to comment for the record on what the military chiefs discussed with the president.

A defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the chiefs and the president reviewed a wide range of options, rather than recommend a course of action.

A plan to shift the emphasis of the US mission to advising Iraqi forces with larger teams of embedded trainers already has been announced by US commanders in Iraq.

But the defense official said how the transition will work has yet to be decided.

"A lot of pieces have to fall into place for this Rubix cube to come together," the official said.

Where the troops will come from to man the larger training teams is a key question still under discussion, according to the official.

Lieutenant General Peter Chiarelli, the top field commander in Iraq, has said most could come from units already in Iraq. But that would involve extending tours of some units or accelerating the deployment of other units slated to go to Iraq.

Arguments also have been made for bringing in troops specifically for the training mission, defense officials say.

That would keep current combat brigades intact, but would require an increase in the overall size of the force, which currently numbers 134,000 but has fluctuated to as many as 150,000 in recent weeks.

The size of the embedded teams also has to be decided. Currently, 11-member teams are assigned to each Iraqi battalion. Army officials have said they could be enlarged to 25 or 30.

The Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan panel that delivered its recommendations on a new strategy in Iraq last week, called for a five-fold increase in the number of military trainers and advisers from 4,000 to 20,000

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