Bush, advisors, continue to huddle on Iraq

Already weeks in the making, President Bush’s new war plan is being burnished with the assistance of top military and diplomatic advisers as critics of the war urge the Democratic Congress to resist any call for a large military buildup in Iraq.

It’s unclear whether Bush will signal his desires or just seek further consultation when he meets at his Texas ranch on Thursday with Vice President Dick Cheney and other members of the National Security Council.

Downplaying expectations, the White House says it’s a “non-decisional” gathering. Yet advisers have set the stage for a presidential speech after the first of the year in which Bush will lay out a new U.S. strategy in Iraq where violence could be sparked by the execution of Saddam Hussein.

“He understands that the American people are, rightfully, very concerned about what is going on in Iraq — as is the president,” deputy White House press secretary Scott Stanzel said Wednesday, stressing that Bush is taking time to weigh all options before making a decision.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who recently visited Iraq, spoke informally with Bush at the ranch Wednesday evening. Cheney, Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley and Hadley’s deputy, J.D. Crouch, also will attend the Thursday morning meeting. The president is to make brief comments afterward.

“I would be surprised if people walked out of the room still completely confused as to the direction he wants to go in,” John Podesta, former President Clinton’s chief of staff and president of the liberal Center for American Progress, said Wednesday. “If they do, that’s yet another bad sign that we’re completely adrift.”

Initially, White House advisers said Bush would announce a plan before Christmas. Then, they said it was more likely after the first of the year. Now, they say only that Bush will deliver his speech sometime between New Year’s and his State of the Union address on Jan. 23.

“They’ve got to be looking at his poll ratings that have sunk to record low levels and say, ‘We’ve got to get out there and change the political discourse on this question’ and try to re-establish the president’s authority,” Podesta said, adding that each day Bush delays announcing his decision, the public becomes more skeptical that he has a plausible plan.

Bush is considering the so-called surge option: increasing the number of troops in Iraq and embedding more U.S. advisers in Iraqi units. Some military experts viewed the president’s unexpected remarks last week that he backs future expansion of the overall size of the Army and Marine Corps to lessen strain on ground forces as a hint that he plans to send in more troops.

In another action that might foreshadow an increase in troops, the Pentagon on Wednesday announced that the 2nd Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division, based at Fort Bragg, N.C., will deploy to Kuwait to serve as the reserve force early next year.

The unit — which would include as many as 3,300 soldiers — is expected to be deployed into Iraq early next year. The move could be part of a short-term surge of troops to the battlefront to quell the ongoing violence.

In a letter to congressional leaders on Wednesday, Podesta and other policy makers urged lawmakers to fund troops already in Iraq and Afghanistan. But he suggested that an up-or-down vote in Congress be required if lawmakers are asked to fund more than 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. There are about 140,000. In addition, the letter calls for putting limits on the mobilization of Guard and Reserve forces.

Sending more troops only increases the Iraqis’ dependence on U.S. forces and allows them to delay making the painful political compromises needed to end the violence, said Larry Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense. He said part of Gates’ mission in Iraq was to get military leaders to support an increase in troops.

“You can put a Marine or soldier on every street corner in Baghdad, but unless the reconciliation process begins, it’s not going to make any difference,” Korb said.

Military historian Frederick Kagan has an opposite viewpoint. He said stability in Baghdad can only be achieved by an infusion of 30,000 combat troops in Iraq for at least 18 months.

A three- to six-month surge won’t do the job because the enemy would simply wait until U.S. troops were withdrawn to rekindle violence, Kagan said in an article released Wednesday by the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

“The only surge option that makes sense is both long and large,” he wrote.

Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press