WASHINGTON – On their first full day on the job, newly-elected Democratic leaders Sen. Harry Reid and Rep. Nancy Pelosi fired a shot to the White House warning President Bush that it would be a mistake to consider a surge of troops as part of his revised Iraq policy.
The letter came as Bush took the first step in delivering a reshaped Iraq strategy by shuffling top brass at the Pentagon after Defense Secretary Robert Gates recommended a new military leadership team.
"The president has accepted these recommendations and will be forwarding the nominations. And he's pleased to do so," said White House spokesman Tony Snow.
Gates recommended replacing Gen. George Casey, the top military commander in Iraq, with Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, Snow said. The president also will nominate Adm. William Fallon, who commands American forces in the Pacific, to replace retiring Gen. John Abizaid at Central Command.
Casey is expected to be named the next Army chief of staff. Casey would replace Gen. Peter Schoomaker, who is due to retire. Schoomaker has held the position since August 1, 2003.
The letter by Senate Majority Leader Reid of Nevada and House Speaker Pelosi of California cautioned that any plan of "surging forces is a strategy that you have already tried and that has already failed."
"We're willing to work with the president on a new way forward but the surge is not a new way forward," Reid said after meeting with Senate Democrats at a closed retreat. "Based on the advice of current and former military leaders, we believe this tactic would be a serious mistake."
The letter and naming of a new military team coincides with Bush's plan to announce his long-awaited new Iraq strategy in a major speech next Wednesday.
Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., who met with the president and other senators Friday at the White House, said Bush asked for their opinions on the situation in Iraq.
"I personally indicated that an escalation of troop levels in Iraq was a mistake and that we need a political accommodation rather than a military approach to the sectarian violence there," Obama told reporters outside of the West Wing. "Some shared my views; others just indicated wariness or concern."
Bush has tough decisions to make, Obama said.
“He recognizes that the status quo is unacceptable and has to change,” Obama said.
The letter, however, does not appear to represent the entire Democratic leadership.
Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who sponsored a resolution last year that called for troops to begin to redeploy from Iraq by the year's end, said he could support a temporary surge with conditions.
"There are a lot of ways you could have a surge, it's not just 'surge versus non-surge,'" said Levin, D-Mich. "If a temporary surge is part of a reduction of U.S. forces in four to six months with political milestones to achieving a political solution agreed upon by Iraqis" then he would be on board.
Speculation is that Bush might call for between 9,000 and 20,000 additional troops to be sent to Iraq — centered in Baghdad — to help government forces stem the unabated sectarian violence.
Reid and Pelosi disagree with that approach, saying Bush's speech is an opportunity to "make a long overdue course correction."
"Adding more combat troops will only endanger more Americans and stretch our military to the breaking point for no strategic gain. And it will undermine our efforts to get the Iraqis to take responsibility for their own future," the letter reads.
Reid and Pelosi call for a phased redeployment over the next four to six months and shifting forces from combat to training, logistics, force protection and counter-terrorism missions.
"It is time to begin to move our forces out of Iraq and make the Iraqi political leadership aware that our commitment is not open ended, that we cannot resolve their sectarian problems, and that only they can find the political resolution required to stabilize Iraq," the letter reads.
Sens. Joseph Biden, D-Del., and Richard Lugar, R-Ind., leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, released a schedule for hearings on Iraq to begin next week.
"The purpose of these hearings will be to seek an answer to the question currently dominating the national debate: What options remain to secure America's interests in Iraq? Where do we go from here?" incoming committee chairman Biden said.
On Thursday, the president spoke with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in a secure video hookup for nearly two hours. Bush said he sought assurances from al-Maliki that he would do what's necessary to protect Iraqis against rising sectarian violence.
"I believe Prime Minister Maliki has the will necessary to make the tough decisions," the president said.
One option being considered by Bush includes sending 8,000 to 9,000 more troops to Iraq, primarily to reinforce Baghdad. There are roughly 140,000 troops in Iraq.
The option involves sending two additional Army brigades, or roughly 7,000 soldiers, to Baghdad, and two Marine battalions, totaling about 1,500 troops, to western Anbar Province, the center of the Sunni Arab insurgency.
In other leadership changes, retired Vice Adm. Mike McConnell, a veteran of more than 25 years in intelligence, was named Friday by Bush to succeed John Negroponte as national intelligence director.
Each of the personnel changes comes on the heels of Defense Secretary Robert Gates replacing Donald H. Rumsfeld, the architect of the unpopular war.
This concern was echoed by Abizaid in testimony on Capitol Hill in November. He said 20,000 more troops could be deployed, but that the Army and Marine Corps are too taxed to sustain the increase for long.
Giving Fallon and Petraeus the top military posts in the Middle East would help Bush assert that he is taking a fresh approach, and help pave the way for him to turn policy there in a new direction.
As with Abizaid, Casey also has expressed reservations about the potential effectiveness of boosting troop strength in Iraq. He told reporters in Iraq last month that he is "not necessarily opposed to the idea" of sending in more troops, but said any increase would have to "help us progress to our strategic objectives."
Besides military, Bush's new plan is expected to contain economic, political and diplomatic components.
Given the need to reduce high unemployment and draw Iraqis away from Shiite militias and the Sunni insurgency, the president is considering loans to businesses. He is looking at getting Iraqis into short-term jobs by proposing a significant increase in the discretionary funds that military commanders can use for reconstruction projects.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.