WASHINGTON — Although nothing is final until President Bush puts his stamp on it, administration officials tell NBC News the president has all but decided on a temporary surge of additional American forces into Iraq in an effort to bring sectarian violence in Baghdad under control.
While no one is talking specific numbers, military officials believe it would involve some 20,000 additional soldiers and Marines.
Most of the increase would be achieved by extending the deployments of those troops already in Iraq by 90 days and accelerating the deployments for troops scheduled to deploy by sending them into Iraq sooner.
Security top priority
Administration and some military officials believe that without adequate security, particularly in Baghdad, any progress in Iraq would be difficult if not impossible.
Once the level of violence is brought under control, the U.S. military could then conceivably concentrate on accelerating the training for Iraqi security forces and the turnover of more territory to the Iraqis.
But administration officials stress the military option is only one part of a larger, more comprehensive strategy.
The plan also would throw more U.S. money at Iraq for reconstruction and a jobs program.
In addition, the U.S. would turn up the political heat by pressuring the Shiite-led government to aggressively crack down on the Shiite militias, particularly the Mahdi Army led by Muqtada al-Sadr, believed responsible for killing hundreds of Iraqi Sunnis in a bloody round of sectarian retributions.
At the same time the U.S. would appeal to moderate Sunnis to work harder to reach some kind of conciliation with the Shiite majority or risk being entirely shut out of any future government in Iraq.
Stiff opposition expected
The plan, of course, is fraught with peril. Some U.S. generals — and many experts outside the current military — warn that a short-term surge in forces will not have any long-term effect on the violence in Iraq. Even worse, they fear it will result in a dramatic increase in American casualties, just as the number of U.S. forces killed in the Iraq war has topped 3,000.
Any surge in the number of American forces — which Bush is expected to announce as part of his new strategy for Iraq as early as next Tuesday — would run into stiff political opposition on Capitol Hill.
Democrats, who take control of both houses on Thursday, are already planning to call new Defense Secretary Robert Gates before the Senate Armed Services Committee late next week to explain, if not try to defend, the president's plan.
Jim Miklaszewski is NBC News chief Pentagon correspondent.
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