By TOM RAUM and LOLITA C. BALDOR
The U.S. and Iraq are moving thousands of troops into Baghdad to bolster Iraq’s war-weary capital in what the White House suggests is an acknowledgment that the six-week U.S.-Iraqi security offensive is not working.
President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki are to discuss details of the new plan Tuesday at the White House, al-Maliki’s first visit to the United States since taking office two months ago.
"It’s pretty clear that there’s an attempt in Baghdad to create as much chaos and havoc as possible. And it’s important to make sure that we address this," White House press secretary Tony Snow said. He said it was clear that the previous plan to bolster security, which Bush praised on his surprise visit to the city on June 13, "has not achieved its objectives."
Snow did not give details of the new Baghdad security plan other than to say it was in the works and would be high on the agenda for the Bush-al-Maliki meetings. Other U.S. officials said it entails bringing more U.S. troops into Baghdad from elsewhere in Iraq.
A senior Defense Department official said the remainder of a backup force that had been stationed in Kuwait was also heading into Iraq. Some U.S. military police companies are being shifted to Baghdad, involving between 500-1,000 troops, as well as a cavalry squadron and a battalion of field artillery troops, said the official, who requested anonymity because the plans yet to be made public.
In addition, the official said, at least two Iraqi military brigades will be brought into Baghdad from other parts of the country. Forces are being shifted to meet changing security demands in different neighborhoods "to face the enemy where we think he is," the official said.
There are generally about 3,500 troops in a brigade, and more than 800 in a battalion. Currently about 30,000 of the 127,000 U.S. troops in Iraq are in Baghdad.
Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, discussed such measures with al-Maliki in Baghdad ahead of the prime minister’s visit to the United States. Casey contends that al-Qaida had increased its killings in Baghdad to show it remains a force to be reckoned with after the June 7 killing of its leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
Al-Maliki’s visit, meanwhile, prompted a sharply worded letter from leading Senate Democrats saying it is essential that the Iraqi leader clarify, before his Wednesday address to Congress, whether he supports or denounces Hezbollah’s attacks against Israel.
"Your failure to condemn Hezbollah’s aggression and recognize Israel’s right to defend itself raises serious questions about whether Iraq under your leadership can play a constructive role in resolving the current crisis and bringing stability to the Middle East," said the letter obtained by The Associated Press. It was signed by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Sens. Richard Durbin of Illinois and Charles Schumer of New York.
Al-Maliki has condemned Israel’s offensive and has said he plans to tell Bush personally that the United States and the international community have not done enough to stop it.
Democrats also asserted Monday that the fierce fighting between Israel and Hezbollah militants was turning attention of Americans away from the fact that conditions continue to deteriorate in Iraq.
"In the last month, nearly 3,000 Iraqis have died _ an average of 100 a day. One hundred more killed just yesterday. This is a civil war," said Reid.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., urged al-Maliki "to move beyond vagaries and develop a viable strategy to deal with the militias and prevent Iraq from descending into full-scale civil war."
Snow, the White House spokesman, declined to be drawn into the debate over whether the rising sectarian violence in Iraq constitutes civil war.
"The focal point right now for terror in Iraq is the area in and around Baghdad, and that obviously is going to be a high priority for the president and the prime minister," Snow said. "I’m not going to get into back-and-forthing with members of Congress. It’s an election year."
The shifting of U.S. troops will mean that the 2nd Brigade of the 1st Armored Division that had been stationed in Kuwait as a reserve force, will now all be in Iraq. And the 2nd Brigade of the 1st Infantry Division, which was based in Schweinfurt, Germany, is moving into Kuwait to serve as the reserve force.
One of the 1st Armored Division brigade’s battalions was sent to the Baghdad area in March to bolster security as the new national government was seated, and additional troops from the brigade were moved to the Anbar province in May.
It was not clear how many U.S. troops will be in Baghdad as a result of the new plan. About two weeks ago, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said that the number of Iraqi and U.S. troops in Baghdad had recently grown from 40,000 to 55,000.
Bush and al-Maliki do not agree on every issue. For instance, al-Maliki, a former Shiite activist who spent years in exile in Syria, has been critical of Bush for siding with Israel and not supporting an immediate cease fire to the fierce Israeli-Hezbollah fighting. Al-Maliki told reporters he would convey that message personally to Bush.
In an essay in Monday’s Wall Street Journal, al-Maliki wrote: "We must be realistic in measuring success and setbacks. There are serious challenges facing my new government and my people. But Iraq as a sovereign nation must stand on its own and find solutions unique to our sensibilities."
Violence continued to rage in Iraq as al-Maliki left Monday for his trip to Britain and the United States.
Followers of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr denounced the Iraqi prime minister’s trip. "We want him to cut his visit and not to sign any paper leading to occupation forces remaining in Iraq," said the statement by the al-Sadr movement. Al-Sadr’s followers hold 30 of the 275 seats in Iraq’s parliament and control five Cabinet ministries including health.
Meanwhile, Vice President Dick Cheney said a rapid U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, as sought by some Democrats, would "simply validate al-Qaida’s strategy and invite more terrorist attacks in the future."
Speaking in Springdale, Ark., at a fundraiser for GOP gubernatorial candidate Asa Hutchinson, Cheney reiterated the administration’s stand that withdrawal decisions would be based on conditions in Iraq, not "artificial timelines set by politicians in Washington, D.C."