WASHINGTON – President Bush plans to order extra U.S. troops to Iraq as part of a new push to secure Baghdad, but in smaller numbers than previously reported, U.S. officials said Wednesday.
The president, who is completing a lengthy review of Iraq policy, is considering dispatching three to four U.S. combat brigades to Iraq, or no more than 15,000 to 20,000 U.S. troops, the officials said.
Bush is expected to announce his decision next week.
Typically, a combat brigade comprises about 3,500 combat troops and more than 1,000 support personnel.
“Instead of a surge, it is a bump,” said a State Department official. He spoke on condition of anonymity because Bush hasn’t yet unveiled details of what the White House is calling a “new way forward” in Iraq.
Bush had been considering proposals to send a much larger contingent into Baghdad – as many as 30,000 to 40,000 soldiers and Marines.
Details of Bush’s Iraq strategy are still being finalized and could change. But the smaller troop increase appears to reflect the real-world constraints the president faces as he tries to persuade the American public that victory is still possible in Iraq.
Congressional Democrats, who formally take power on Capitol Hill today, widely oppose any increase in the roughly 140,000 U.S. troops now in Iraq. Many want Bush to present a plan for withdrawing those troops.
Meanwhile, the U.S. military has been stretched by four years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, meaning there are few active-duty combat units available for deployment.
To marshal even 15,000 to 20,000 additional troops, Bush would have to accelerate the return of some units to the battlefield, cutting their time to train between deployments.
Advocates of a “surge” in U.S. troop levels have argued that to be effective in halting the escalating civil war between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, the United States would have to send a significant number of troops for an extended period of time.
Frederick W. Kagan, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative policy research center, recently briefed the White House on his plan to send 32,000 additional soldiers and Marines to Baghdad and volatile Anbar province.
The troops would remain in Iraq for 18 months.
On Wednesday, Kagan cautioned against over-interpreting the number of troops being sent. More important, he said, is the number of individual combat brigades and battalions sent to Iraq and how they’re deployed.
The State Department official said that, even at this late juncture, administration officials are debating what the extra troops would do.
Officials in Baghdad have said that extra troops could be used to secure the capital or add soldiers to military transition teams, who train alongside their Iraqi counterparts.
But in Washington, the thinking increasingly is that the troops would be used to try to secure Baghdad and protect the Iraqi population from relentless violence, State Department officials said.
Bush is expected to announce his new Iraq policy to the nation next week, possibly as early as Wednesday, officials said.