US soldiers in Iraq urge Gates to send more troops

By Kristin Roberts
Thursday, December 21, 2006; 6:11 PM

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - U.S. soldiers in Iraq urged new Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Thursday to send reinforcements but generals expressed concern that deploying more troops might delay the time when Iraqis take control.

Stung by defeat at mid-term elections last month, President Bush is expected to announce a new strategy in January for the unpopular war, which has so far killed nearly 3,000 U.S. soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqis.

Bush has said one option is a short-term increase in U.S. troop levels but that he had not yet made up his mind.

Gates, in his first week on the job after replacing Donald Rumsfeld, is consulting widely for advice on Iraq. After meeting U.S. commanders, he met Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and Defense Minister Abdel Qader Jassim on Thursday.

Gates told a news conference that he had emphasized Washington's support for the government but that talks with his Iraqi counterpart had not focused on troop numbers.

"No numbers of additional troops were discussed. The focus was mainly on an overall approach including the possibility of some additional assistance," he said.

"The success of our partnership cannot happen without the security of the Iraqi people and to that end we discussed a wide range of options and, as we said yesterday, all options are on the table," Gates added.

In California, U.S. military prosecutors charged four U.S. Marines on Thursday with murder and four others on related charges in the November 2005 deaths of 24 unarmed civilians in the western Iraq town of Haditha, according to charging documents.

Iraqi witnesses say the Marines shot civilians in their homes to retaliate for the death of a comrade. Defense lawyers say the men were engaged in a battle after the bomb exploded and the civilians may have died during the chaos.

Maliki has called the Haditha killings a "terrible crime."

John Sifton, senior researcher with New York-based Human Rights Watch, welcomed the charges but said accountability for the killings needed to run further up the chain of command.

"If the military really wants to stop future abuses it shouldn't just focus on low-level offenders, it needs to focus on the systemic issues that lead to war crimes," he said.

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