WASHINGTON – U.S and Iraqi officials are planning to again increase the number of Iraqi security forces to help quell violence in the country.
The review of the size of local forces comes as President Bush's new military-political team in Iraq — commander Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker — is assessing how to go forward in the troubled four-year-old campaign.
"General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker have been working on the specific tactics" needed for the strategy President Bush announced in January — a troop buildup to calm Baghdad so Iraqis can make political and economic progress, National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said Wednesday.
The president expects (them) ... to come up with what could be called the campaign plan for the strategy," he said.
Some 337,000 Iraqi police and soldiers had been trained and equipped as of May 9, according to Defense Department statistics. Officials hope to have the currently planned 365,000 in place by the end of the year, Brig. Gen. Michael Jones, deputy director for political-military affairs in the Middle East for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told lawmakers Tuesday.
"I will tell you that force structure is under review by the Iraqi government," with the U.S. "in advisory mode," he added. Jones said that an increase in forces cannot by itself win peace in Iraq, noting that political reconciliation and other progress is needed as well.
Training Iraqis to take over security for their own country has gone slower than U.S. officials expected and has been considered a key factor in when U.S. forces will be able to begin to withdraw.
A House Armed Services subcommittee called Pentagon officials to a hearing on Capitol Hill on Tuesday partly because the Defense Department has not responded to repeated requests for details about the training program, how readiness among Iraqis is assessed and so on, said committee chairman Rep. Marty Meehan, D-Mass.
The 337,000 already trained includes 143,000 in the Iraqi military and 194,000 police and others working in areas like highway patrol and forensics.
Because of problems like absenteeism and infiltration of Iraqi security forces by militants, Meehan said the numbers of those trained "really doesn't tell us whether they're on duty, or whether they're capable, or it they're really insurgents or terrorists or sectarian militia."
Officials have adjusted the size of the force a number of times, including last December, when Iraq's prime minister decided to add about 20,000 soldiers on top of a planned 325,000, to put more forces in the most heavily contested parts of the country.
"It is appropriate to constantly evaluate the security situation and the number of troops available to execute the missions," said Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman.
If Iraqis decide to increase the size of their forces again, it would not necessarily mean a longer stay for U.S. troops,
"Our presence there is based on the security situation on the ground," he said.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other senior administration officials have consistently said it's too early to know whether the troop buildup will achieve its stated goal of reducing sectarian violence in Baghdad to a level low enough to permit Iraqi political leaders to forge compromises to stabilize the country.
Petraeus, sent to Baghdad in February to implement his new counterinsurgency strategy, said in April that the new team was "really just getting started with the new effort." He said he and Crocker, would come to Washington in the first or second week of September to offer their assessment.
Gates has said that so far there only has been "conceptual thinking" about an alternative strategy for Iraq, should the current approach be deemed a failure, rather than an actual contingency plan that could be put into action.