WASHINGTON — With President Bush leaning toward sending more soldiers to pacify Iraq, his defense secretary is privately opposing the buildup.
According to two administration officials who asked not to be named, Robert Gates expressed his skepticism about a troop surge in Iraq on his first day on the job, December 18, at a Pentagon meeting with civilians who oversee the Air Force, Army, Navy, and Marines.
The view of the new defense secretary appears to be at odds with the leanings of Mr. Bush, who is expected to announce a new troop surge when he unveils his new war strategy next month. Mr. Gates met with Mr. Bush Saturday at Camp David after a trip to Iraq, where the defense secretary met with the commander of American forces there, General George Casey. General Casey said he would be open to an increase in troops, but a spokesman for him told the Christian Science Monitor over the weekend that the general had not formally requested more troops.
The view from the military on the troop surge is murky. The Pentagon's top generals have been on the record before Congress and in the press for the past two years as saying the current troop levels in Iraq are adequate for the balancing act of standing up an Iraqi military and also fighting off largely Sunni insurgents. At the same time, last June's Baghdad offensive, which moved troops to Iraq's capital from other troubled provinces such as Anbar has been widely seen as a failure, as Shiite militias continue their killing spree undeterred. The failure of what was known as "Operation Forward Together" has led to a rethinking of strategy.
Before taking over as defense secretary earlier this month, Mr. Gates had been a member of the 10-person Iraq Study Group, also known as the Baker-Hamilton commission. That group has warned against a long-term buildup of forces in Iraq, arguing it would lessen pressure on the elected government in Baghdad to reach a political accommodation there, which the commission says is the only way to stabilize the deteriorating nation.
That's the way many of the Democrats preparing to take over Congress see things as well. Yesterday, in a conference call with reporters, the incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Joseph Biden, a Democrat of Delaware, said he would launch three weeks of hearings on Iraq in January in part to persuade Republicans to go to the White House to oppose a new troop surge for Iraq.
"I totally oppose the surging of additional troops in Baghdad," Mr. Biden told reporters yesterday. He also said a majority of his colleagues in the Senate also opposed the push for new troops "absent some profound political announcement, addressing the two overriding issues," which he said were sharing oil revenues and dealing with largely Shiite factional militias.
Yesterday, a Defense Department spokesman stressed that any speculation about whether Mr. Gates was telling the president not to send more troops to Iraq was premature. "The secretary made a trip to Iraq, he consulted with senior military commanders in the country, he most recently met with the president at Camp David this weekend," Lieutenant Commander Joe Carpenter said. "He will make his recommendations to the president. At this juncture it would be premature to speculate what the secretary's recommendations are or will be."
When asked on December 22 about his thoughts on a troop surge at a press conference, Mr. Gates played his cards close to the vest. "I think we have a broad strategic agreement between the Iraqi military and Iraqi government and our military," he said. "Clearly there are more discussions that need to take place in Washington and more specific recommendations. But I'm quite confident that what I've heard from the Iraqis, of their plans this week, that we will be able to — that together and with them in the lead we will be able to make an improvement in the security situation here in Baghdad."
Mr. Gates's view of Iraq could put him into a political alliance with the Democrats who called for the head of the man he replaced, Donald Rumsfeld. Mr. Biden said yesterday that he had hoped Mr. Gates would appear before his committee's hearings. He said he also discussed the hearings with Secretary of State Rice.
Unlike Mr. Biden, the incoming Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada, has said that he would support a short term increase of troops in Iraq if it led to the beginning of a withdrawal of soldiers by the beginning of 2008. The incoming chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Silvestre Reyes, told Newsweek this month that he supports sending an additional 20,000 to 30,000 American troops to Iraq.
Senator McCain, a Republican of Arizona who is running for president, has long advocated sending more troops to Iraq.
In other Iraq-related developments yesterday:
• The Associated Press reported that, at 2,974, the number of American troops killed in Iraq had exceeded the number of casualties in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
• Iraq's highest court rejected an appeal from Saddam Hussein and ordered the former dictator hanged within 30 days.