U.S. and foreign officials say it is increasingly clear that more armed forces will be needed in Iraq over coming months to secure the nation's first democratic elections, to protect against the possibility of an insurgent offensive during Ramadan and to allow U.S. commanders to launch a major counteroffensive to quell the rebellion in the Sunni Triangle.
The question of who will provide those troops, however, is still unanswered. Army Gen. John P. Abizaid told reporters on Capitol Hill on Wednesday evening that more forces will be needed, saying he prefers that the bulk of the new forces come from the newly trained Iraqi security forces and from other nations instead of from a significant increase in U.S. troops.
"I think we will need more troops than we currently have to secure the elections process in Iraq that will probably take place in the end of January," Abizaid said after a closed-door briefing with legislators about the state of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. But, he added, "it is our belief that those troops will be Iraqi troops." Also, he said, there may be more international troops.
So, Abizaid concluded, "I don't foresee a need for more American troops, but we can't discount it." There are 135,000 U.S. service members in Iraq.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday that he expects Iraq to become a more violent place as elections approach, and he said Abizaid will be getting more troops. Rumsfeld, however, also expects the forces to come largely in the form of new Iraqi security recruits. He also said that more U.S. troops could be sent if combat commanders request them.
"In the event General Abizaid decides he needs more forces to assist in the elections, like he has, for example, in Afghanistan, he'll ask, and he'll get it," Rumsfeld said.
U.S. officials had hoped to supplant U.S. troops with an Iraqi security force as part of the plan to transfer sovereignty at the end of June, but training Iraqi forces has proven far more difficult than expected. While Pentagon officials were optimistic that they could have a trained Iraqi force of 145,000 by January, there are fears that that will not be enough to secure elections.
Pentagon staff officers are working hard to develop contingency plans for increasing the U.S. force in Iraq if a decision is made to do that, said an Army officer at the Pentagon. "They're coming up with courses of actions and options to meet the requirement," this officer said. No formal request has yet arrived from Abizaid, he said, but "prudent military planning" is underway.
No decisions have been made yet about how to conduct the offensive in the Sunni Triangle, such as whether to assault cities simultaneously or sequentially, the official said, and that could affect the number of troops needed on the ground at any given time.
Any boost in U.S. troop numbers would not be achieved by a massive new deployment, he added, but rather would be similar to what was done in April, when the U.S. military presence in Iraq was temporarily increased by extending the tours of units that already had been in Iraq for a year, as new troops arrived. The overlap of incoming and outgoing troops could raise U.S. troop levels by the tens of thousands without additional official call-ups.
The Army officer said he thought it was probable that Marines in western Iraq on a seven-month tour would be extended. A Marine spokeswoman said she had not received any indication that such an extension would occur.
Asked for official comment, an Army spokesman said, "We have received no formal orders for Requests for Forces, and there is no planning underway."
Speaking to a group of reporters at a breakfast meeting yesterday morning, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), a member of the Armed Services Committee, said he hopes Iraqi forces can be increased soon to allow U.S. troops to come home, but he acknowledged the possibility that more U.S. soldiers could be necessary.
"We have to do whatever we have to do to push back the enemy," Lieberman said. "I wouldn't take an increase in troop strength over the short term off the table."
Rumsfeld again publicly knocked down persistent rumors that the Bush administration is considering a reinstatement of the draft to boost the military's numbers. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) said a constituent contacted him recently to inquire about such rumors, and there have been countless e-mail and Internet claims that a draft plan is in place for after the November elections.
"I'm not supposed to get in politics, but it is absolutely false that anyone in this administration is considering reinstating the draft," Rumsfeld said, his voice rising. "That is nonsense."
In a move that has not yet been announced, the former Soviet republic of Georgia is planning to send 800 troops before the end of the year to join the 180 it has in Iraq, officials said.
"It's not yet official, but that's the general idea," said Irakli Ignti, first secretary of the Georgian Embassy. Gela Bezhuashvili, the Georgian national security adviser, said he also has been told that Romania plans to send troops in addition to the 800 there.
Also, a U.S. official said he thinks Fiji will offer a contingent. A Romanian official said she was not aware of any additional deployment being planned. The Fijian Embassy did not return calls seeking comment.
Staff writer Bradley Graham contributed to this report.