Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the rest of the Bush administration may be undecided on whether to send more troops to Iraq, but several soldiers he met with at Camp Victory here on Thursday morning here said extra forces would help.

"Sir I think we need to just keep doing what we’re doing," Spc. Jason T. Green, with the 101st Military Intelligence Brigade Combat Team of the 1st Infantry Division, told Gates during a breakfast session with about 15 U.S. soldiers.

"I really think we need more troops here. With more presence on the ground, more troops might hold them off long enough to where we can get the Iraqi Army trained up."

The troops may be somewhat at odds with military commanders, who worry that rushing thousands more Americans to the battlefront could prompt Iraqis to slow their effort to take control of their country.

Those concerns are "clearly a consideration" in mapping out future strategy, Gates said.

Just days into his new job as defense chief, Gates planned meetings in Baghdad with Iraqi government officials Thursday, after a day of talks with his military commanders on Wednesday.

His hour-long question-and-answer session with troops over scrambled eggs Thursday was largely spent gathering insights from those closest to the action.

When he asked them whether adding forces would help, he got a roomful of nods.

"More troops would help us integrate the Iraq Army into patrols more," said Pfc. Cassandra Wallace, from the 10th Mountain Division.

The soldiers also told him they think the Iraqi Army is getting better, but that it should be bigger and that many of the Iraqis are still not showing up for duty.

Gates, who later helicoptered to Balad Air Base west of Baghdad for a special operations briefing, did not tip his hand much to the soldiers, who were from the 1st Cavalry Division, the 1st Infantry Division and the 10th Mountain Division.

But he said U.S. logistics and support troops are likely to be in Iraq for a lot longer than the combat forces — as efforts continue to stabilize the country. And saying Iran and Syria are playing a very negative role in the violence in Iraq, he emphasized that "figuring out the regional context is very important."

"We need to make damned sure that the neighbors understand that we’re going to be here for a long time — here being the Persian Gulf," said Gates.

The new defense chief is visiting Iraq with a high-level entourage to assess options for calming violence in the country as President Bush considers sending thousands more troops. Bush is expected to unveil his new policy next month.

"Secretary Gates is going to be an important voice in the Iraq strategy review that’s under way," Bush told reporters at a White House news conference Wednesday.

After meeting with top U.S. generals at Camp Victory, Gates said Wednesday that he had only begun to determine how to reshape U.S. war policy. "We discussed the possibility of a surge and the potential for what it might accomplish," he told reporters.

Top U.S. commanders also have worried that even a short-term troop increase might bring only a temporary respite to the violence — or none at all — while creating shortages of fresh troops for future missions.

One option would add five or more additional combat brigades, or roughly 20,000 troops, to the 140,000 already there.

Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq and one of several generals who met with Gates, said he supports boosting troop levels only when there is a specific purpose for their deployment.

"I’m not necessarily opposed to the idea, but what I want to see happen is when, if we do bring more American troops here, they help us progress to our strategic objectives," Casey told reporters during a news conference with Gates and military leaders.

Gen. John Abizaid, top U.S. commander in the Middle East, said the military is "looking at every possible thing that might influence the situation to make Baghdad in particular more secure."

In addition to a possible short-term troop increase aimed at bringing violence in Baghdad and Anbar province under control, Bush is considering removing U.S. combat forces and accelerating the training and equipping of Iraqi security forces. Military leaders are also considering an increase in the number of American advisers for Iraqi security forces.

Echoing Casey and other commanders, Bush said he would only agree to a temporary troop surge if an achievable mission could be defined.

Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press

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