WASHINGTON - President Bush laid out his "New Way Forward" in Iraq on Wednesday night, calling for beefing up U.S. forces there by extending tours of duty for 21,500 troops, adding $1.2 billion in new reconstruction aid and letting Iraqi forces take the lead in joint combat operations.
"The changes I have outlined tonight are aimed at ensuring the survival of a young democracy that is fighting for its life in a part of the world of enormous importance to American security," Bush said in a nationally televised address. "The question is whether our new strategy will bring us closer to success. I believe that it will."
Bush's latest Iraq plan faces two immediate obstacles:
• Leaders of the new Democratic-led Congress oppose his proposed troop buildup, as do many influential Republicans.
They might try to block it, though they haven't agreed on a firm plan to do so.
• Bush's plan relies on Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite Muslim-dominated government to crack down on its allies in the country's Shiite militias, which it has so far refused to do.
Questions abound: Will an additional 21,500 U.S. troops in Iraq, taken mostly from units to be held longer in Iraq or sent there sooner, be enough to help restore order both in Baghdad and in violent, Sunni-dominated Anbar Province?
Will an additional $1 billion in aid make a dent in the country's economic problems?
Last, will Bush's efforts to reassure Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait and Iraq's other Sunni Muslim neighbors calm their fears that Shiite power could expand from Iran through Iraq to Lebanon? Bush has sent an aircraft carrier battle group and some Patriot missile defense batteries to the Persian Gulf to calm Sunni Arab nerves. But he has largely ignored recommendations to open talks with Iran and Syria and to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
Specifically, Bush proposed:
• Boosting U.S. troop strength in Iraq by 21,500 by extending tours of duty, with about 17,500 to Baghdad and 4,000 to Anbar Province. The increase will be staggered, with the first combat brigade arriving in Baghdad on Jan. 15 and the second on Feb. 15. Additional brigades will be added every 30 days.
• Increasing economic reconstruction aid by $1 billion.
• Having Iraq deploy 10,500 additional Iraqi troops and nine additional 800-man police brigades in Baghdad, with all of the new military units in place by Feb. 15.
• A new command structure that will put Iraqis in charge of security in Baghdad, with U.S. troops deeply embedded in Iraqi units. U.S. troops would remain under U.S. command.
• An end to the open-ended commitment of U.S. troops, but no timetable for withdrawal.
• Having Iraqis take the lead responsibility for security throughout the country by November, with continued U.S. help after that.
• The deployment of additional civilian reconstruction teams, including teams embedded with troops to hasten rebuilding efforts in newly secured areas.
• New diplomatic efforts to get more help from Iraq's neighbors and a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
• More pressure on Iraqis to follow through on plans for provincial elections, a new law for distributing oil revenues and other measures intended to foster Iraqi unity.
In addition, Bush's plan appears to abandon a key point of previous U.S. strategy - it no longer emphasizes disarming and disbanding Shiite militias, leaving both to the Iraqi government, which depends on those militias for support.
Wash. delegation responds to president's plan
Sen. Patty Murray, Democrat, said Bush was offering "more of the same" by sending in still more troops to Iraq.
"Despite the warnings of his top generals, and the message sent by the American people, the president has again decided to go it alone. This is the wrong approach," Murray said.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, Democrat, said Bush's speech makes U.S. policy in Iraq dependent on 20,000 new troops to stabilize Baghdad.
"Our strategy must be to significantly change the course by holding Iraqis to sooner timetables on taking security control, passing an oil law and making the other political compromises necessary to ease disagreements among Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds," she said.
Rep. Norm Dicks, Democrat, said he was skeptical that Iraqis could deliver on promises they had made to the president and other U.S. officials. In addition to extra U.S. forces, Bush's plan envisions Iraq committing 10,000 to 12,000 more troops to secure Baghdad's neighborhoods.
Rep. Jay Inslee, Democrat, said that instead of a troop buildup, "we need a surge of congressional action to stop George Bush's disastrous policies in Iraq."
Rep. Cathy McMorris, Republican, offered a tepid endorsement. "The new strategy outlined tonight is worth our consideration," she said. "However, if the United States' role is to make a difference, the Iraqi government must follow through on stated intentions. The Iraqis need to take action to prove their commitment to securing and governing their own country."