WASHINGTON -- The Marine Corps is pressing to remove its forces from Iraq and to send Marines instead to Afghanistan to take over the leading role in combat there, according to senior military and Pentagon officials.
The Marine Corps commandant's idea would effectively leave the Iraq war in the hands of the Army while giving the Marines a prominent new role in Afghanistan, under overall NATO command.
The suggestion was raised in a session last week convened by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates for the Joint Chiefs of Staff and regional war-fighting commanders. While it is still under review, its supporters, including some in the Army, argue that a realignment could allow the Army and Marines each to operate more efficiently in sustaining troop levels for two wars that have put a strain on their forces.
As described by officials who have been briefed on the closed-door discussion, the idea represents the first tangible new thinking to emerge since the White House in September endorsed a plan to begin gradual troop withdrawals from Iraq, but also signaled that U.S. forces likely would be in Iraq for years to come.
At the moment, there are no major Marine units among the 26,000 or so U.S. forces in Afghanistan. In Iraq there are about 25,000 Marines among the 160,000 U.S. troops.
It is not clear exactly how many of the Marines in Iraq would be moved over. But the plan would require a major reshuffling, and it would make Marines the dominant U.S force in Afghanistan, in a war that has broader public support than the one in Iraq.
Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have not spoken publicly about the Marine concept, and aides to both officials said no formal proposal had been presented by the Marines. But the idea has been the focus of intense discussions between senior Marine Corps officers and other officials within the Defense Department.
It is not clear whether the Army would support the idea. But some officials sympathetic to the Army said that such a realignment would help ease some pressure on the Army, by allowing it to shift forces from Afghanistan into Iraq, and by simplifying planning for future troop rotations.
The Marine proposal could also face resistance from the Air Force, whose current role in providing combat aircraft for Afghanistan could be squeezed if the overall mission is handed to the Marines. Unlike the Army, the Marines would bring a significant force of combat aircraft to that conflict.
Whether the Marine proposal takes hold or not, the most sensitive counterterrorism missions in Afghanistan would remain the job of a military task force that draws on Army, Navy and Air Force special operations units.
Military officials say the Marine proposal is also an early indication of jockeying among the four armed services for a place in combat missions in years to come.
"At the end of the day, this could be decided by parochialism, and making sure each service does not lose equity, as much as on how best to manage the risk of force levels for Iraq and Afghanistan," said one Pentagon planner.
Tensions over how to divide future budgets have begun to resurface across the military because of apprehension that congressional support for large increases in defense spending seen since the Sept. 11 attacks will diminish, leaving the services to compete for money.
Senior officials said the new idea went beyond simply drawing clearer lines about who was in charge of providing combat personnel, war-fighting equipment and supplies to the two war zones.
They said it would allow the Marines to carry out the Afghan mission in a way the Army cannot, by deploying as an integrated Marine task force that included combat aircraft as well as infantry and armored vehicles, while the Army must rely on the Air Force.