RAMADI, Iraq – In his most optimistic remarks since the U.S. troop buildup began, Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Tuesday that Iraq has undergone a "sea change" in security in recent months, and that this will influence his recommendation to President Bush on how long to continue the current strategy.
After conferring with Maj. Gen. Walter Gaskin and other commanders in this provincial capital west of Baghdad, Pace told reporters he has gathered a positive picture of the security environment not only here but also in Baghdad, where he began his Iraq visit on Monday.
He was asked whether this would inform his thinking about whether to continue the current strategy, with extra U.S. troops battling to secure Baghdad and Anbar province.
"It will because what I'm hearing now is a sea change that is taking place in many places here," he replied. "It's no longer a matter of pushing Al Qaeda out of Ramadi, for example, but rather — now that they have been pushed out — helping the local police and the local army have a chance to get their feet on the ground and set up their systems."
Pace said earlier in Baghdad that the U.S. military is continuing various options for Iraq, including an even bigger troop buildup if President Bush thinks his "surge" strategy needs a further boost.
Pace said the chiefs of the Army, Marine Corps, Navy and Air Force are developing their own assessment of the situation in Iraq, to be presented to Bush in September, that will be separate from a report to Congress that month by Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander for Iraq.
The military must "be prepared for whatever it's going to look like two months from now," Pace said Monday in an interview with two reporters traveling with him to Iraq from Washington.
"That way, if we need to plus up or come down" in numbers of troops in Iraq, the details will have been studied, he said.
Pace, on his first visit since U.S. commanders accelerated combat operations in mid-June, said another option under consideration is maintaining current troop levels beyond September.
There are now about 158,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, reflecting a boost of about 30,000 to carry out the new strategy Bush announced in January. The plan is focused on providing better security for Iraqis in Baghdad, but the intended effect — political reconciliation between Sunnis and Shiites — has yet to be achieved, and many in Congress are clamoring to begin withdrawing troops soon.
In Washington on Monday, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid said he would force the chamber's first all-night debate on the Iraq war Tuesday night in advance of a vote Wednesday on whether to bring home all combat troops by next spring.
Republicans are using Senate rules to insist that the measure have 60 votes to pass — a de facto filibuster since it takes that many votes to cut off debate.
Pace conferred Monday with Petraeus and Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the No. 2 commander in Iraq, who said he did not currently foresee requesting more troops.
"Right now I can't find an assessment where I would say I need more troops," Odierno said, adding that he is confident that by September he will be able to give Petraeus his advice on how the troop buildup is working.
"My assessment right now is, I need more time" to understand how the offensive targeting Al Qaeda in Iraq is working and how it could lead to political progress, Odierno said.
"I'm seeing some progress now here in Iraq. We have really just started what the Iraqis term 'liberating' them from Al Qaeda. What I've got to determine is what do I need in order to continue that progress so that the political piece can then take hold and Iraqi security forces can hold this for the long term."