WASHINGTON – The Senate's top Democrat offered qualified support Sunday for a plan to increase U.S. troops in Iraq, saying it would be acceptable as part of a broader strategy to bring combat forces home by 2008.
President Bush's former secretary of state, however, expressed doubts any troop surge would be effective, noting U.S. forces already are overextended. "The American Army isn't large enough to secure Baghdad," said Colin Powell, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman during the 1991 Gulf War.
Yet more American soldiers in Baghdad is precisely what Iraq's Sunni vice president said is necessary to quell sectarian violence — even though the Shiite-dominated government has proposed shifting U.S. troops to the capital's periphery and having Iraqis take the primary role for security.
"Who is going to replace the American troops? ... Iraqi troops, across the board, they are insufficient, incompetent, and many of them (are) corrupted," said Tariq al-Hashemi, who met with Bush in Washington last week.
There are about 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and about 5,000 advisers. Combat troops make up less than half of U.S. forces in Iraq.
Incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, whose party campaigned in the November congressional election on changing course in Iraq, said he would be open only to a short-term increase.
"If the commanders on the ground said this is just for a short period of time, we'll go along with that," said Reid, D-Nev., citing a time frame such as two months to three months. But a period of 18 months to 24 months would be too long, he said.
"The American people will not allow this war to go on as it has. It simply is a war that will not be won militarily. It can only be won politically," Reid said.
At least three other Democrats did not support Reid's position on the additional troops.
Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., said that if it were a short-term increase, "won't our adversaries simply adjust their tactics, wait us out and wait until we reduce again? So I think you'd have to ask very serious questions about the utility of this."
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said, "I respect Harry Reid on it, but that's not where I am."
Kennedy, like Reed a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said there would be widespread opposition by members of his committee if Bush proposed a troop increase.
Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., the incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said any proposal to send more troops should only follow a political solution that will end civil unrest. "The president and others who support the surge have it exactly backwards," Biden said during a speech in Manchester, N.H.
Powell said if more troops were proposed, commanders would need to make their mission clear, determine whether they can accomplish it and what size force is appropriate. "We have to be very, very careful in this instance not just to grab a number out of the air," Powell said.
He noted that the Iraqi leadership wants to take control of security for Baghdad. While saying he does not know if that is possible now, "This is the time to say to them, `Fine, you think you can do that. Show us not only the political will to do that, show us the political means you're going to use."'
Increasing troops would run counter to recent recommendations by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, which set a goal of withdrawing combat troops by early 2008 in support of more aggressive regional diplomacy.
Powell said that U.S. troops should not act as policemen. He described the active U.S. Army as "about broken," with a shortage of equipment, officers going on repetitive tours and gaps in military coverage elsewhere in the world.
"The current active Army is not large enough and the Marine Corps is not large enough for the kinds of missions they're being asked to perform," he said. "And the Congress has a serious task ahead of it, to make sure that the Army and the Marine Corps get the funds they need to sustain themselves and to sustain their equipment and their ammunition."
Asked if victory was possible, Powell said: "If victory means you have gotten rid of every insurgent, you have peace throughout the country, I don't see that in the cards right now. What we are going to have to do is try to bring a sense of order and security to the country, even if there continues to be low-level violence and insurgency."
He said such a victory must increasingly become the responsibility of the Iraqi leadership.
"If they can't pull it off, if they can't demonstrate the political will and means to go after the militias, to create a military force that is answerable and confident in the government, and to root out the corruption that exists in the police forces — if they are unable to do that, the United States is not going to be able to do it for them," Powell said.
Reid spoke on ABC's "This Week," Kennedy was on "FOX News Sunday," Powell appeared on CBS' "Face the Nation" and Reed and al-Hashemi were on a cable news network.