WASHINGTON -- The American military command in Iraq is now willing to back a temporary increase in American troops in Baghdad as part of a broader Iraqi and U.S. effort to stem the country's slide toward chaos, senior American officials said yesterday.
President Bush and his advisers were told yesterday of the new position when Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates met with them at Camp David, an administration official said.
Until recently, the top ground commander in Iraq, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., has argued that sending more American forces into Baghdad and Anbar province, the two most violent regions of Iraq, would increase the Iraqi dependency on Washington and in the words of one senior official, "make this feel more like an occupation."
But Casey and Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, who has day-to-day command of American forces in Iraq, indicated that they were open to a troop increase when Gates met with them in Baghdad last week.
"They are open to the possibility of some increase in force," a senior Defense Department official said. "They are supportive of taking steps to support the Iraqis in their plan, including the possible modest augmentation in U.S. combat forces."
The possible increase in forces, officials said, ranges from fewer than 10,000 troops to as many as 30,000 troops.
Winning the support of American generals for the surge is politically crucial to Bush if he hopes to make the increase part of the new strategy he is expected to announce to the country in early January. Over the past two weeks, Bush has appeared at odds with the generals in some of his comments, as the White House veered toward strategies that involve a greater show of force and some members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff questioned whether a surge in forces would make a lasting difference.
The Camp David meeting convened by Bush included Gates, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley for what the White House called a chance for Gates to report his findings. Bush plans to convene a full meeting of the National Security Council on Thursday at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.
The key to any new strategy, some officials said, would be a binding commitment by the Iraqi government that it, too, would provide far more troops and take other steps to try to slow the sectarian violence. The government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has repeatedly stressed the desire to take charge of the security situation in Baghdad but has also failed to send most of the reinforcements the Americans requested this summer during a beefed-up effort to quell the violence in the capital.
It is not clear how Bush plans to enforce any commitments from al-Maliki, but Gates said in Baghdad before flying home that he senses "a broad strategic agreement between the Iraqi military and Iraqi government and our military."
"There is still some work to be done," he said. "But I do expect to give a report to the president on what I've learned and my perceptions." Gates was joined on his Iraq tour by officials from the White House and other parts of the government.
Administration officials, who spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to publicly discuss internal deliberations, said that Casey had not yet submitted a formal recommendation to Gates and Bush. Gates, they said, asked Casey to enter into final discussions with Iraqi officials on the specifics of their role.
But officials said Casey was coming closer to the position of Odierno that a greater show of force would be critical to the effort to contain the Sunni insurgency and tamp down the violence committed by Shiite militias. The shift in the generals' position was first reported in the Los Angeles Times yesterday.
Should Bush decide to send more troops, Casey's backing for a such a step would help the president deal with congressional critics, who have pressed the administration to begin a withdrawal. It would also aid him with Republicans, some of whom were taken aback recently when former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who also served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Bush had not yet clearly defined a role for additional troops that made it worth the projected casualties and deeper American involvement.