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Iraq has more questions than answers

December 16, 2006

WASHINGTON: President George W. Bush’s high profile search for a winning strategy in Iraq is generating more confusion than clarity as he sorts through contradictory advice on a new way forward.

Bush appeared to throw up his hands after a Pentagon meeting on Wednesday with the military chiefs and the future and current defence secretaries, putting off a decision on what to do about Iraq until early next year.

“I’m not going to be rushed into making a difficult decision, a necessary decision, to say to our troops, ‘We’re going to give you the tools necessary to succeed and a strategy to help you succeed,’” he told reporters.

The debate over Iraq options is coming at a time when the chiefs of both the army and marine corps are warning that they do not have enough troops to sustain the current level of effort in Iraq and at the same time meet other contingencies.

General Peter Schoomaker, the army chief of staff, said on Thursday the pace of deployments will break the active army unless it expands and has greater access to its reserve forces, a politically sensitive issue.

The army’s stretched position severely limits Bush’s options in Iraq, which range from a short-term surge of US troops to quickly shifting the mission in Iraq from combat to primarily training Iraqis.Bush said one reason he was delaying a decision was to give Robert Gates, who is to be sworn in a defence secretary on Monday, time to evaluate the situation.

Gates, a former member of a bipartisan panel that conducted a nine month review of Iraq strategy, said in his confirmation hearings there were “no new ideas on Iraq” but he wanted to talk to US commanders before making up his mind.

The Los Angeles Times reported on Wednesday that support was coalescing within the Pentagon for “doubling up” in Iraq with a substantial build-up of US troops coupled with an offensive against Shia leader Moqtada al-Sadr.

The Washington Post, however, on Thursday cited unidentified officials as saying the military chiefs were recommending changing the mission from fighting insurgents and militias to supporting Iraqi troops and hunting terrorists.

The Post said half the 15 combat brigades in Iraq could be assigned to train and advise Iraqi units while the others would be pulled back from the cities and assigned to rapid reaction, border protection and counter-terrorism missions.

The Iraqi government, meanwhile, has its own plan to put Iraqi security forces in charge in Baghdad-- the most important battleground in the country, according to US commanders.

Under the Iraqis’ plan, some US forces would be embedded as advisers to Iraqi units, but the rest would be moved to the outskirts of the capital to keep insurgents and suicide bombers out.

Pentagon spokespersons refused to comment for the record on what the military chiefs discussed with the president.

A defence official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the chiefs and the president reviewed a wide range of options, rather than recommend a course of action.—AFP