The White House said Tuesday that increasing U.S. troops in Iraq is an option under consideration and denied that there are differences with the Joint Chiefs of Staff over that idea.
White House press secretary Tony Snow emphasized that no decisions have been made about changing U.S. policy in Iraq.
"There’s an assumption that people have been given marching orders, and at this point, the president is asking folks to take a look at a number of things," Snow said.
"I think people are trying to create a fight between the president and the Joint Chiefs when one does not exist," Snow said at a White House briefing. He would not disclose if Bush was leaning one way or the other about increasing troops in Iraq or a new direction in U.S. policy. According to some accounts, the White House is pushing the idea of a surge in troops and the Joint Chiefs oppose it.
The White House has said Bush will announce his decisions in January.
Asked again about whether there were conflicting opinions between the White House and the Joint Chiefs on how to proceed, Snow said: "What I’m saying is this budding narrative of the president locking horns with the joint chiefs is tonally inaccurate."
Robert Gates, the new defense secretary, wasted no time on Monday spelling out the stakes he sees in Iraq.
In his first public remarks as Pentagon chief, Gates warned that failure in Iraq would be a "calamity" that would haunt the United States for years. He said he would go there soon to consult with commanders.
Underscoring eroding security in Iraq, a Pentagon report — issued just hours after Gates was sworn in as the nation’s 22nd secretary of defense — said the number of insurgent and sectarian attacks had risen to the highest level in years. It said civil war remains a possibility and urged the Iraqi government to act with urgency to prevent collapse.
Gates sketched out an agenda of reversing the downward spiral in Iraq, attending to resurgent violence in Afghanistan and pushing for the military modernization that was a priority of his predecessor, Donald H. Rumsfeld.
Iraq, he said, comes first.
"All of us want to find a way to bring America’s sons and daughters home again," Gates told a few hundred people in a Pentagon auditorium, including President Bush, Cabinet secretaries, members of Congress, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Gates’ wife and mother. Rumsfeld, who handed off his authority earlier Monday in a private event, did not attend.
"As the president has made clear," Gates said, "we simply cannot afford to fail in the Middle East. Failure in Iraq at this juncture would be a calamity that would haunt our nation, impair our credibility and endanger Americans for decades to come."
Gates has not tipped his hand on the kinds of changes in Iraq strategy he thinks may be needed. He said that since his Senate confirmation in early December he has held in-depth discussions with Bush on Iraq policy.
More broadly, Gates has said he will keep an open mind about other issues at the Pentagon, including proposals by the heads of the Army and Marine Corps to increase the size of their services to cope with the strains of war. Last week, Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army’s top commander, warned that his force "will break" without thousands more active duty troops and greater use of the reserves.
At the Pentagon ceremony, Bush said he is confident Gates, 63, will bring a fresh perspective to the Iraq problem.
Bush made no mention of his plan for changing Iraq strategy, which he has said will be unveiled next month.
U.S. commanders moved several thousand more U.S. troops into Baghdad last summer in a bid to tamp down the violence. The move worked briefly, but the violence rebounded quickly, according to the Pentagon report sent to Congress on Monday.
The Pentagon report said attacks on U.S. and Iraqi troops and Iraqi civilians jumped sharply in recent months to the highest level since Iraq regained its sovereignty in June 2004. From mid-August to mid-November, the weekly average number of attacks increased 22 percent from the previous three months. The worst violence was in Baghdad and in the western province of Anbar, long the focus of activity by Sunni insurgents, the report said.
A bar chart in the Pentagon’s report gave no exact numbers but indicated the weekly average had approached 1,000 in the latest period, compared with about 800 per week from the May-to-August period. Statistics provided separately by the Pentagon said weekly attacks had averaged 959 in the latest period.
The report also said the Iraqi government’s failure to end sectarian violence has eroded ordinary Iraqis’ confidence in their future. That conclusion reflects some of the Bush administration’s doubt about the ability of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to make the hard decisions U.S. officials insist are needed to quell the violence.