The White House announced a shuffling of U.S. military leaders in the Iraq war Friday as Congress’ new Democratic chiefs criticized plans President Bush is considering to boost U.S. troop strength in the war zone.

Bush will nominate Adm. William Fallon, who commands American forces in the Pacific, to replace Gen. John Abizaid as top U.S. commander in the Middle East. Bush will nominate Army Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, who headed the effort to train Iraqi security forces, to replace Gen. George Casey as top American general in Iraq.

Casey in turn will replace the retiring Gen. Peter Schoomaker as Army chief of staff.

“The president has accepted these recommendations and will be forwarding the nominations and he’s pleased to do so,” White House press secretary Tony Snow said.

The appointments, which will have to be confirmed by the Senate, represent a visible demonstration of Bush’s desire to shift gears in Iraq. The changes come just days before the president plans to announce a new strategy in the grueling war, now nearly four years old, in which more than 3,000 U.S. troops have been killed.

Bush’s new strategy is expected to entail new political, military and economic steps. The military approach, which has attracted the most attention and skepticism from Congress, is expected to include an increase in U.S. forces, possibly 9,000 additional troops deployed to the Baghdad capital alone.

There are about 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.

In a further change, Bush will also nominate Ryan Crocker, a veteran American diplomat now U.S. envoy to Pakistan, to replace Zalmay Khalilzad as the U.S. ambassador to Iraq. Khalilzad will be named ambassador to the United Nations, according to a senior Bush administration official.

Both Abizaid and Casey have expressed qualms in recent weeks about boosting U.S. forces in Iraq. Abizaid said an increase of 20,000 could not be sustained for long by the overburdened American military, and Casey said such a boost should be used only to advance U.S. strategic goals.

Even as the White House announced Bush’s plans, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi released a letter to the president urging him to begin pulling troops out of Iraq in four to six months.

They also asked him to begin shifting the mission of U.S. forces there from combat to training and logistical support of the Iraqis.

“We are well past the point of more troops for Iraq,” Pelosi, D-Calif., and Reid, D-Nev., wrote a day after their party took control of Capitol Hill.

The Democrats’ criticism of a troop buildup was not new. But the letter underscored a new reality for Bush: His Iraq policy now will be challenged at every turn by lawmakers.

Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, a member of the Senate Defense appropriations subcommittee, said of Fallon: “He’s highly knowledgeable and well-educated and respected. I would think that his nomination, if the president is to submit it, would go flying through.”

In another major change late last year, Defense Secretary Robert Gates replaced Donald H. Rumsfeld, the architect of the unpopular war.

Besides ushering in new personnel, Bush on Friday discussed his plans for the Iraq war privately with more than a dozen senators and House members, a list that included some of his biggest critics as well as ardent supporters.

Briefings with lawmakers were expected to continue through next week, culminating in a meeting with bipartisan leadership on Wednesday, according to lawmakers and aides.

Bush has also decided to shift John Negroponte, national intelligence director, to the State Department to become No. 2 to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Replacing Negroponte would be retired Vice Adm. Mike McConnell, a veteran of more than 25 years in intelligence.

Copyright © 2007 The Associated Press

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