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Iraq: Bush Expected To Announce U.S. Troop 'Surge'

U.S. troops searching a house in Baghdad in August 2006 (epa) January 5, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President Bush is set to present the details of his new initiatives for Iraq next week -- on a day yet to be announced.

And, publicly at least, the administration so far has maintained the suspense over what those new initiatives will be.

"I'll be ready to outline a strategy that will help the Iraqis achieve the objective of a country that can govern, sustain, and defend itself some time next week," Bush said on January 4. "I've still got consultations to go through. Whatever decision I make, though, will be all aimed at achieving our objective."

But some features of Bush's new strategy are being leaked to the press.

Bringing In More Troops?

Those leaks suggest the president and his team have decided to renew Washington's existing Iraq strategy rather than pursue alternatives. And they will do so by committing more troops to try to rein in Iraq's violence and by providing more money for reconstruction.

The reported centerpiece of the plan is to make some 20,000 troops available to strengthen forces as needed in Baghdad and -- secondarily -- in restive Al-Anbar Governorate.

To make these extra forces available would require the administration to mobilize reservists, extend current tours of duty, and accelerate planned deployments.

Media reports say some of the troops would go directly to their destinations in Iraq, while others could be kept in readiness as needed in Kuwait or the United States.

If fully deployed, the extra troops would double the number of U.S. combat troops in Baghdad. Their reported goal would be to roll back sectarian militias now responsible for most of the violence in the capital.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld with U.S. troops in Mosul in 2004 (epa)

Many of these militias are associated with parties represented in the Iraqi government. That has raised Washington's concern over whether Baghdad could ever do the job by itself.

The focus on the capital suggests that the administration now views sectarian militias as more threatening to Iraq's stability than antigovernment insurgents. The insurgency, however, remains active in Sunni-majority central Iraq, which includes Al-Anbar Governorate.

At the same time, Bush is expected next week to detail a request to Congress for billions of dollars of new aid to spur economic growth and job creation in Iraq. Aid would also go to building democracy, specifically by supporting more political parties and human rights groups.

That would mark a renewal of the administration's original reconstruction strategy. Washington has already spent some $21 billion on reconstruction projects, but so far has largely failed to restore utilities to prewar levels.

Some New Faces

Along with the planned "surge" in U.S. troop strength and reconstruction monies, the administration is reported to be planning major personnel changes among top U.S. officials in charge of Iraq policy.

The administration's likely changes in its Iraq team include moving John Negroponte to the No. 2 position in the State Department. Negroponte, who has been director of national intelligence, was the first U.S. ambassador to Baghdad and would reinforce the diplomatic team dealing with the Iraq crisis.

At the same time, Bush is expected to nominate U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad to be the new ambassador to the UN.

Democrats And Republicans

Both these moves could appear as a bid to heighten diplomatic efforts to support Iraq. That would be in line with recent recommendations from a top-level bipartisan congressional committee -- the Iraq Study Group.

But it is uncertain whether this gesture toward diplomacy would be seen by Congress as a sufficient response to the Iraq Survey Group's suggestions. Those included exploring regional talks with Iran and Syria. Bush has so far ruled out unconditional talks with Iran -- a key backer of Iraq's Shi'ite militias.

Bush is under pressure to show flexibility after his Republican Party lost badly in U.S. legislative elections in November. Those elections handed control of Congress to the opposition Democrats for the first time in 12 years and were widely seen as a referendum on the president's Iraq record.

Nancy Pelosi being congratulated after being elected speaker of the House of Representatives on January 4 (epa)

The new majority leader of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi (Democrat, California), restated the Democrats' demands for policy changes from the White House as she took up her position on January 4.

"The election of 2006 was a call to change, not merely to change the control of the Congress, but for a new direction for our country," Pelosi said. "Nowhere were the American people more clear about the need for a new direction, than in the war in Iraq."

Senior administration officials say privately that Bush will also shuffle the top military officers responsible for Iraq.

General David Petraeus, who has experience training Iraq's army, would replace General George Casey as the top military commander in Iraq.

And Admiral William Fallon would replace General John Abizaid -- who is already serving an extended tour of duty -- as head of the Central Command. That post oversees U.S. military operations from Iraq to Afghanistan.

The likely personnel changes would continue a process that began with the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense at the end of last year. Rumsfeld, an architect of the Iraq invasion who was widely criticized by Democrats, has been succeeded by Robert Gates, who is seen as less divisive.

Headed Toward Hearings In Congress

In pressing forward with initiatives that largely renew the administration's existing Iraq strategy -- but with new top players -- the White House knows it risks a major confrontation with Democrats invigorated by their own renewed leadership of Congress.

But the White House may be counting on divisions among the Democrats themselves -- as well as the continuing strong presence of Bush's Republican Party in both houses -- to secure support.

Powerful Democratic Senator Joseph Biden (Delaware), the new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has repeatedly called any increase in troop strength the "absolute wrong strategy."

But some other Democratic legislators have said they could support a temporary increase since it could help assure the safety of the some 140,000 U.S. troops already in Iraq.

Next week, all eyes will be on the new Congress to see how it responds to Bush in what will be the first test of the new power balance in Washington.

Many observers say the Democrats may have little immediate ability to force Bush to change policy because they do not want to restrict funding for the military. Any restrictions could be regarded negatively by the public as compromising the safety of U.S. troops.

But the Democratic-led Congress has the ability to oversee how the Bush administration pursues its policies and has signaled it will do so vigorously.

Congressional leaders say they will call some dozen hearings on Iraq over the next three weeks.

The hearings raise the stakes for Bush if he tries to pursue policies that ignore congressional and public concerns. And those concerns are that he quickly find the right formula for securing Iraq and ultimately returning American troops home.

Iraq In Transition

Iraq In Transition

THE COMPLETE STORY: RFE/RL's complete coverage of events in Iraq and that country's ongoing transition.

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