Buildup of Iraq force set to begin


WASHINGTON (AP) – Two plans are in the works for the next step in the war in Iraq – President Bush’s call for more troops and the Democratic-led effort to oppose it.

And Democrats jumped out with theirs first, pushing against Bush’s strategy for about 20,000 additional troops and another $1 billion in funding well before the president began his pitch for public support.

An increase in Iraqi responsibility will be part of the framework of Bush’s broad new war plan, according to U.S. officials and congressional members. As Bush prepared to address the nation tonight, congressional Democrats were announcing plans to vote on the proposed troop buildup.

The first wave of additional U.S. troops will move into Iraq by month’s end under the Bush plan, a senior defense official said Tuesday. The increase is opposed by many Democrats, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pledged a House vote on the spike.

Details of a gradual military buildup emerged a day before Bush was to ask for more than $1 billion to shore up the country’s battered economy and create jobs, said a second U.S. official.

Bush is expected to urge friendly Mideast countries to increase their aid to Iraq but will ignore the recommendation of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group that he include Syria and Iran in an effort to stanch Iraqi bloodshed nearly four years after the U.S. invasion, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the plan has not yet been announced.

Bush is expected to link the troop increase to promised steps by the Iraqi government to build up its own military, ease the country’s murderous sectarian tensions, increase reconstruction and enact a plan to distribute oil revenues among its religious sects.

Even before he delivers his speech, Bush’s plan has drawn sharp criticism from the leaders of the new, Democratic-controlled Congress. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he hoped for a bipartisan measure that would declare, “We don’t support this escalation of the war.” If it passes, “the president’s going to have to take note of that. I think that’s the beginning of the end, as far as I’m concerned,” he said.

Jennifer Crider, a spokeswoman for Pelosi, said Tuesday night, “The House will vote on the president’s proposal.” She said she had no details.

Republicans would face a choice of supporting the president on the one hand or siding with public opinion increasingly critical of the war.

The president met during the day with lawmakers, practiced his speech and briefed key foreign allies, including making calls to the leaders of Britain, Australia and Denmark. Bush was expected to practice his speech a few more times before addressing the nation at 9 p.m. EST Wednesday from the library of the White House.

Under Bush’s plan, thousands of troops will be alerted that they may be needed in Iraq – including units already there whose service would be extended, or others that could be sent earlier than initially scheduled, said one official.

Moving first into Iraq would be the 2nd Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division, which is now in Kuwait and poised to head quickly into the country, the defense official said. The brigade, numbering about 3,500 troops, is based at Fort Bragg, N.C.

Other units, including Marine brigades in western Iraq, could be asked to extend their deployment. And the military buildup is also likely to include moving the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis into the Persian Gulf region, as a show of force and a warning to Iran and Syria.

There are already about 132,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.

According to the defense official, Bush also will discuss the need to address how often the Pentagon can tap the National Guard and Reserves, although he may provide few details. And Bush will again endorse the need to increase the size of the Army and Marine Corps.

The speech looms as a key one for Bush, who is beginning the final two years of his presidency waging a war that has scant public support and whose own popularity has plummeted as well.

The public has heard several previous campaigns by Bush to defend his Iraq policies and show that he is changing with changing circumstances. Since the war’s start in March 2003, there have been at least seven public relations offensives by Bush on the war, with some of these speech series timed to milestone events and others to dips in polls.

In Iraq Tuesday, U.S. jets screamed low over the capital and helicopter gunships swooped in to pound a central Baghdad battleground as Iraqi and American troops waged a daylong fight that officials said killed 50 insurgents in a militant Sunni Arab stronghold.

Iraqi police, meanwhile, reported finding 52 bodies dumped in three cities, 41 of them in Baghdad, all apparent victims of sectarian reprisal killings.

Bush has met with more than 110 lawmakers in recent days to discuss his plan, and some offered details Tuesday.

“The president believes that the Iraqi forces aided by American forces will be able to clean out Baghdad and stabilize Baghdad and leave as he put it ‘space’ for a political reconciliation process to unify the country and stabilize Iraq,” said Rep. Robert Andrews, D-N.J., one of 12 Democratic lawmakers who met with Bush Tuesday.

Andrews said the meeting was “dominated by our skepticism of whether the Iraqi forces are willing to fight for their own government.”

Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he expected Bush to announce that up to 20,000 additional troops will be sent to Iraq but not to say how long the extra forces will be there. He said he believed Bush will signal that the overall U.S. commitment in Iraq is not open-ended.

A key element of the plan will be the increased responsibilities taken on by the Iraqis. Bush is expected to link the troop increase to efforts by the Iraqi government to curb Shiite militias that have terrorized the Sunni minority, as well as moves to ease government restrictions on members of the late Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Tuesday that he believes the Baghdad government suggested some of the conditions, such as their ongoing efforts to get more Iraqi forces trained and equipped for battle and committing more money for reconstruction.

Leading the opposition, Sen. Edward Kennedy, a longtime critic, introduced legislation that would deny the president the billions needed to send more troops unless Congress agreed first. It was unclear whether the bill would ever reach the full Senate, but it could serve as a rallying point for critics.

White House press secretary Tony Snow conceded that Bush has a challenge in convincing a war-weary public.

“The president will not shape policy according to public opinion, but he does understand that it’s important to bring the public back to this war and restore public confidence and support for the mission,” Snow said.

Associated Press writers Anne Gearan, Anne Flaherty and David Espo contributed to this report.