Bush Making Changes in His Iraq Team
As He Reviews War Policy, Deep Divisions Remain

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.

After more than a month of interagency discussions chaired by deputy national security adviser J.D. Crouch II, deep differences also remain among administration officials over the fundamental question of whether Iraq's Shiites can pull together a moderate political center.

Washington needs Baghdad to provide military manpower to confront the illegal Shiite militias that are fueling sectarian violence and to take political steps to accommodate Sunni grievances, notably in promised but long-delayed amendments to the new constitution.

But the crude execution of Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi government's insistence that two top officials of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, who were captured in a U.S. military raid, had to be handed back to Tehran have fueled U.S. concern that the government is under the partial control of Shiite militias and Iran. Though the White House has officially endorsed Maliki, U.S. officials are divided about whether the prime minister will really deliver, particularly badly needed Iraqi troops.

Last summer, Iraq failed to provide promised troops in Operation Together Forward, the highly publicized effort to secure Baghdad. Maliki pledged six battalions but provided only two -- and has not delivered the remainder, according to U.S. officials. Iraqi troops are essential to hold areas of the city after they are cleared of insurgents and other threats. The joint operation has instead resulted in escalating violence and increased U.S. and Iraqi deaths.

Some Iraqi units ordered to the capital suffered serious attrition or simply refused to go, which also happened in earlier joint U.S.-Iraqi operations. The AWOL rates among Iraqi units have averaged 5 to 8 percent but can rise to more than 50 percent when units are directed to deploy outside their normal areas of operation, according to a recent Pentagon report.

There is currently no military judicial system in the Iraqi army, and Iraqi commanders do not have the legal leverage to compel their soldiers into combat, according to the Pentagon. U.S. military commanders have long expressed frustration over the Iraqi military's failure to provide sufficient troops.

After yesterday's videoconference, White House spokesman Tony Snow said the president did not press Maliki to crack down on Shiite militias because Maliki brought it up himself. "The prime minister stressed his determination to go after anybody responsible for violence," Snow said. "That would include not only insurgent groups and Saddam loyalists, but also militias within Iraq."

Bush also spoke for the first time yesterday about Hussein's execution, saying he wished the proceedings had unfolded in a "more dignified way."

But he said Hussein was given justice. "My personal reaction is that Saddam Hussein was given a trial that he was unwilling to give the thousands of people he killed," Bush said. "He was given a fair trial, something he was unwilling to give thousands of Iraqi citizens who he brutalized."

The White House declined to comment yesterday on its personnel moves, but a senior administration official said the changes are a precursor to revamping policy. "It is appropriate to have the people in place as soon as possible to implement the new policy," said the official, who declined to be identified because the president has not made his announcement.

Bush is expected to announce today that Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte will return to the State Department as deputy to Condoleezza Rice, and retired Navy Adm. John M. McConnell will take the top U.S. intelligence job, U.S. officials say. McConnell directed the National Security Agency from 1992 to 1996 under President Bill Clinton.

As part of his congressional consultations before next week's speech, Bush has invited a group of lawmakers to talk today about Iraq, including moderate Democratic Sens. Ben Nelson (Neb.) and Blanche Lincoln (Ark.). He will meet with more lawmakers on Monday.

Staff writers Glenn Kessler, Ann Scott Tyson and Peter Baker contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company