Fri, Dec 22, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Bush foreshadows Iraq troop increase

CHANGES LOOMING?The president's new thinking came as the Defense Department requested an additional US$99.7 billion to pay for the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan

AP , WASHINGTON

US President George W. Bush speaks during a news conference in Washington on Wednesday.

PHOTO: AP

Acknowledging deepening frustration over Iraq, US President George W. Bush says he is considering an increase in US forces and is telling the public to expect more painful US losses next year.

Bush was unusually candid on Wednesday at a year-end news conference about US setbacks and dashed hopes in the war, which has claimed the lives of more than 2,950 US military members and tens of thousands of Iraqis.

"2006 was a difficult year for our troops and the Iraqi people. We began the year with optimism, but that faded as extremists fomented sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shiites," he said.

"And over the course of the year they had success," Bush said. "Their success hurt our efforts to help the Iraqis rebuild their country, it set back reconciliation, it kept Iraq's unity government and our coalition from establishing security and stability throughout the country."

Democrats are about to claim control of Congress, and Americans are overwhelmingly unhappy about Bush's handling of the war, so the president is at a turning point as he searches for new approaches. Administration officials said Bush's remarks were intended to brace a war-weary nation for another tough year in Iraq.

The heavy cost of the war also came into focus as the Department of Defense circulated a request for an additional US$99.7 billion to pay for the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. If accepted by Bush and approved by Congress, the proposal would boost this year's budget for those wars to about US$170 billion.

So far, four years of war in Iraq have cost about US$350 billion.

The shift in policy is likely to be accompanied by a shuffle of top US generals in Iraq. Army General John Abizaid, commander of US forces from the Horn of Africa to Central Asia and Pakistan, has submitted plans to go ahead with a retirement that is months overdue. The top US commander in Iraq, General George Casey, has indicated he may not stay much longer than the end of this year.

Abizaid and Casey have opposed sending more troops to Iraq, and their departures could make sending them easier for Bush. One option calls for sending five or more additional combat brigades -- roughly 20,000 or more troops.

Apart from any increase in Iraq, Bush said the military's overall size should be increased to relieve the heavy strain on US troops, reversing the previous position of his administration during former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon tenure. Bush also said a troop surge in Iraq would have to be for a specific mission.

His remarks appeared intended to allay doubts voiced by prominent military officials such as Abizaid, who worry that sending more troops to Iraq would be ineffective and put more demands on an already-stretched US military.

"There's got to be a specific mission that can be accomplished with the addition of more troops before, you know, I agree on that strategy," the president said.

The Bush administration says several questions have to be answered about adding troops: What would be their purpose, what would they do, how long would they stay and what is the Iraqi government's view on the rules of engagement for more US forces? Also, would the additional troops serve in training positions, in combat.

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