US-Iraq debate reaches boiling point

By Jim Mannion

Washington - The debate over United States options in Iraq has intensified with the military reportedly inclined to temporarily increase US forces by up to 30 000 troops while expanding training for Iraqi forces.

US President George Bush said no decision had been made on the matter, but the Washington Post reported on Monday that three basic options have emerged in a strategy review in the Pentagon, with the one gaining favour a hybrid that would beef up US forces for a short period to tamp down sectarian violence.

"I haven't made any decisions about troop increases or troop decreases, and won't until I hear from a variety of sources," Bush said in Indonesia where he was meeting with the country's leaders.

Pentagon spokesperson Bryan Whitman would not comment specifically on the Post story, but said it would be "premature" to second-guess the outcome of a series of strategy reviews now underway in Washington.

"We've always said the size of the US presence as well as the coalition presence will be based on conditions on the ground and by the recommendations of the commanders in the field," he said.

A sizable boost in US troops would run against the strong current of public anger over Iraq, which swept Democrats to power congress in the November 7 elections, ending the congressional majority held by Bush's Republicans for the last 12 years.

"Politically this is the worst possible time to be proposing an increase in the force level because the public has just voted to reduce the US involvement in the country," said Loren Thompson, an analyst at the Lexington Institute.

The best way forward has remained a hot topic as potential candidates to succeed Bush in the 2008 presidential election have been laying out their views on how to conduct the war.

While Democrats call for a phased withdrawal of US troops, Senator John McCain, a Republican heavyweight considering a White House run, has argued in favour of a troop increase.

General John Abizaid, the US commander in Iraq, said last week that a 20 000-troop increase in the 144 000-member US force would have a temporary effect on the violence.

But he said the pool of available combat troops in the US Army and the Marine Corps was not large enough to sustain such an increase.

Abizaid said more troops were not needed at the moment, but he warned that a withdrawal of US troops would lead to an increase in the sectarian violence wracking the country.

The Post, which cited unidentified senior defence officials, said the secret Joint Staff review offers three basic options - "Go Big," "Go Long" and "Go Home."

The "Go Big" option calls for a classic counter-insurgency operation that would involve several hundred thousand additional US troops as well as heavily armed Iraqi police, the newspaper said.

That option has been all but rejected by the study group, which concluded that there are not enough troops in the US military and too few effective Iraqi forces, The Post said.

The "Go Home" option was rejected by the Pentagon group as likely to push Iraq directly into a full-blown civil war, according to the report.

The "Go Long" option calls for shrinking the US force in Iraq, replacing the current combat force with an extensive program of military advising and training for Iraqi security forces that would last for years, it said.

The Post said the military is leaning toward a combination of "Go Long" and "Go Big," surging US force levels by 20 000 to 30 000 troops for a short period while the training program is being expanded.

Once the transition has been made, US force levels in Iraq would drop to about 60 000, according to the Post.

The temporary increase in force levels is intended to signal to Iraqis that the shift in posture is not a disguised withdrawal, the Post said.

Two key lawmakers, one Democrat and one Republican, argued Monday against any troop increase, stressing the need to let Iraqis assume more of the security burden.

Influential Democratic Senator Joseph Biden said he favoured a variation of the "Go Home" pullout option.

"The best one is to, in fact, begin to let the Iraqi leadership know we're not going to be staying," Biden said on NBC television.

Republican representative Duncan Hunter, the outgoing chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said the administration should make better use of available Iraqi forces before bringing in more US troops.

"Let's use what we've got," he said. "We've trained the Iraqis, we've equipped the Iraqis, we've got 27 battalions that aren't in the battle. Let's put them in the battle." - Sapa-AFP

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