LONDON, Nov 16: US President George Bush wants to prepare one `last big push’ in Iraq, and could send in up to 20,000 extra troops to try to finally quell the spiralling violence there, a British newspaper said on Thursday.
The daily Guardian, citing sources familiar with the US administration’s deliberations, said an international conference involving Iraq's neighbours could also be called under strategy gaining ground in Washington.
The report said that Mr Bush’s views are having a `decisive impact’ on the Iraq Study Group, the panel of experts led by Bush ally and former secretary of state James Baker to consider possible changes of strategy in Iraq.
Although the panel's work is not complete, its recommendations are expected to be built around a four-point “victory strategy” developed by Pentagon officials advising the group, it said.
The proposed strategy is being circulated in draft form and has been discussed in closed-door sessions with Baker and Vice President Dick Cheney, a hawk on Iraq.
Point one would involve an increase, rather than a decrease, in troop numbers, possibly by as many as 20,000 soldiers, in particular to bolster security around Baghdad.
The second point would call for an international conference including Iraq's neighbours, to bolster regional cooperation with a view to Iraq's international rehabilitation.
Point three would focus on reviving national reconciliation between ethnic groups within Iraq, while the fourth key recommendation would be for more US funds to help Iraq bolster its own security forces, among other activities.
The paper, which has strong links with Prime Minister Tony Blair, a key Bush ally, said that Bush is refusing to give ground despite growing calls for a rethink involving a possible withdrawal of troops next year.
It cited a former senior US official as saying that Bush is not facing up to the reality in Iraq, where the death toll continues to mount over three years after the 2003 US-led invasion.
“He is in a state of denial about Iraq. Nobody else is any more. But he is.
But he knows he's got less than a year, maybe six months, to make it work. If it fails, I expect the withdrawal process to begin next fall.”
MORE ADVISERS: US military leaders are drawing up plans to embed more military trainers with Iraqi forces, Pentagon officials said on Thursday.
Gen John Abizaid, the commander of US forces in the Middle East, outlined the plan to substantially expand the embedded military teams on Wednesday in what he called a major change but which others said was the current strategy intensified.
A key unanswered question is whether adding to the 4,000 military advisers now assigned to Iraqi units will mean an increase in the overall size of the 144,000-strong US force.
“His staff are now in the planning process of looking at this to determine what is needed to fulfil that requirement,” said Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman.
“There are a couple of different ways. You could re-mission some folks, and you could also ask for some additional folks for those types of duties,” he said.
Gen Abizaid made clear that immediate action is needed to halt a spiral of sectarian violence that he said could tip into uncontrolled chaos if not suppressed within the next four to six months.
US intelligence chiefs, if anything, painted an even darker picture of the deteriorating security situation, highlighting the formidable obstacles facing Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki's national unity government.
The CIA station in Baghdad describes sectarian violence “descending into smaller and smaller groups fighting over smaller and smaller issues over smaller and smaller pieces of territory,” said General Michael Hayden, the CIA director.
Western forces are now `the primary counter to a breakdown in central authority’, said Lieutenant General Michael Maples, head of the Defence Intelligence Agency.
Gen Abizaid said he has deployed about 2,000 additional marines to Iraq's Al-Anbar province, a hotbed of the Sunni insurgency that the general acknowledged was not under control.
But he said the main effort would remain in Baghdad and that the Iraqi army had to take the lead in targeting the militia groups that now pose the most immediate threat.
“If more troops need to come in, they need to come in to make the Iraqi army stronger,” Abizaid said. “That's my professional opinion.” The plan would put US military advisers throughout the Iraqi army down to the company level to stiffen the spine of a force that has often proved unreliable and in places infiltrated by militias.
They are needed “to speed the amount of training that is done, to speed the amount of heavy weapons that gets there, and to speed the ability of Iraqi troops to deploy,” the general said.
CIA CHIEF: CIA Director-General Michael Hayden has said the Iraqi government must overcome “formidable” obstacles, from sectarian divisions and corruption to the presence of Al Qaeda.
Testifying at a US Senate hearing, Hayden said on Wednesday that “to strengthen the common ground that all Iraqis can share, the government of Prime Minister Maliki will have to overcome several formidable obstacles”.
“Internal divisions and power struggles among the Shia make it difficult for Shia leaders to take the actions that might ease Sunni fears of domination,” he said at the US Senate Committee on Armed Forces.
“Radical Shia militias and splinter groups stoke the violence, while brutal Sunni attacks make even moderate Shia question whether it is possible to reconcile the Sunnis to the new Shia-dominated power structures,” the Central Intelligence Agency chief said.
Neighbouring Iran “is stoking violence and supporting even competing Shia factions”, he said. “The Sunnis are even more divided,” he added.—AFP