Bush Making Changes in His Iraq Team

By Robin Wright and Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 5, 2007

President Bush is overhauling his top diplomatic and military team in Iraq, as the White House scrambles to complete its new war policy package in time for the president to unveil it in a speech to the nation next week, officials said.

But the White House is struggling to overcome deep differences among advisers over both the deployment of additional U.S. troops and whether the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki can deliver long-delayed political and military actions, according to officials familiar with the debate.

With significant policy details left to be worked out this weekend, the administration is nonetheless moving ahead on several personnel changes. It is set to announce that Army Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, who gained fame for his early success in training Iraqi troops and securing a volatile city in northern Iraq, will replace Gen. George W. Casey Jr. as commander of the multinational forces in Iraq, officials say.

The administration also intends to nominate Navy Adm. William J. Fallon to head the Central Command, replacing Gen. John P. Abizaid as the top U.S. military commander for the Middle East. Some military officials consider Fallon an unusual choice, because he is a naval officer in charge of the Pacific Command with limited experience in the Middle East and would be in charge of two ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

On the diplomatic side, the White House will appoint veteran U.S. diplomat Ryan C. Crocker, the current envoy to Pakistan, who began his career in the 1970s in Iraq, as the new ambassador to Baghdad. The controversial current ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, will be nominated to become the top U.S. envoy at the United Nations, replacing John R. Bolton, U.S. officials say.

The president is tentatively set to speak on Wednesday about his new plan for Iraq, with Maliki due to unveil his own new security plan a day or two before. Bush spoke for almost two hours with Maliki yesterday by videoconference, half of which was just the two of them and translators.

Maliki pledged to Bush that he will announce the deployment of three additional Iraqi army brigades to help secure Baghdad, U.S. officials said. The Iraq commitment would be in the neighborhood of some 4,500 troops, according to their brigade strengths.

After a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel yesterday, Bush told reporters he had a good conversation with Maliki. "One thing I was looking for was . . . to determine whether or not he has the will necessary to do the hard work to protect his people," Bush said.

On deploying new U.S. troops in Iraq, Bush pledged to make sure that the mission is "clear and specific and can be accomplished."

But deep divisions remain between the White House on one side and the Joint Chiefs and congressional leaders on the other about whether a surge of up to 20,000 troops will turn around the deteriorating situation, according to U.S. officials.

The U.S. military is increasingly resigned to the probability that Bush will deploy a relatively small number of additional troops -- between one and five brigades -- in part because he has few other dramatic options available to signal U.S. determination in Iraq, officials said. But the Joint Chiefs have not given up making the case that the potential dangers outweigh the benefits for several reasons, officials said.

There are already signs that a limited U.S. escalation, even when complemented by new political and economic steps, may not satisfy either supporters or critics of a surge. Pentagon officials and military experts say far more troops are needed to make a real difference, but the United States would have to remobilize reserves, extend current tours of duty and accelerate planned deployments just to come up with 20,000 troops, U.S. officials say. And such a surge would strap the military for other potential crises, they add.

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