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January 9, 2007

"Surge" would be led by Iraqi troops, Bush tells Dems

Posted by David Postman at 3:44 PM

President Bush pitched his plan for sending more U.S. troops to House Democrats today by saying it "it is an Iraqi plan" and will happen only with "Iraqis taking the lead," said Congressman Adam Smith, just back from a White House meeting.

Smith was at the White House with a dozen Democratic lawmakers, mostly Armed Services Committee members. The administration's civilian and military leaders were there, including Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and the secretaries of defense and state.

Bush said he wanted to send about 20,000 U.S. troops to Iraq, but that "there will be more Iraqi forces than U.S. forces," Smith said. The plan would be to "surge in Baghdad" to retake the city in what was described as a "clear and hold" strategy.

The next step would be to work with Sunnis in the Anbar Province to drive out al-Qaida fighters. Smith said that "apparently the Sunnis have decided that al-Qaida is a bad thing" and are willing to work with U.S. and Iraqi troops. (This BBC story from last month has more on the Sunni's drive against al-Qaida.)

But Bush told the Democrats that before any U.S. escalation, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki would have 30 days to follow through on commitments he made to the joint effort. Said Smith,

"The primary commitment is that they will use their forces to secure Baghdad, irrespective of the tribe and sect involved. Basically, Maliki won't show up and have al-Sadr's back once there is a conflict like there was three months ago. They need to act like a country instead of a collection of separate groups."

The administration hopes that in addition to the military gains to be made, having an Iraqi-led effort will have important political benefits, too.

"The argument is that the Iraqi government will have proven that it can do something right and that will increase confidence in both Sunni and Shia that this is a government that is worth working for and a government worth working with."

Smith is doubtful it'd all work out as Bush says. But he's not sure what Congress can do to stop him. Some Democrats have said they want to cut off funding for any new troops. Smith said it'd be hard to craft a plan that would continue to fund existing troops but not others.

"We could have a vote on whether or not we think this is a wise thing to do. We did that in Kosovo when Clinton was president and the House did not endorse the plan and he went ahead anyway. ... So how do you implement that without interfering with military operations that could place our troops at greater risk? I do not want a political fight between Congress and the President to get in the way and make things more difficult for our troops."

Smith said he saw a different tone today from the administration.

"The change is there seems there's some intellectual rigor going into this. There is none of the cockiness. But it's too little too late."

Democratic opposition to the troop increase is growing. In Iowa, Gov. Tom Vilsack, a Democratic candidate for president, used his Condition of the State address to ask state lawmakers to pass a resolution against sending any more troops to Iraq.

"I ask you to use your collective voice to pass a resolution urging our president and our Congress not to make this tragic mistake for those who will unnecessarily die."

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