WASHINGTON,(Reuters) – Unbowed by public doubts, President George W. Bush plans to announce on Wednesday that he will send about 20,000 more U.S. troops to Iraq as part of a long-delayed shift in strategy in the unpopular war.
Bush’s plan may represent his last best chance to salvage the U.S. mission in Iraq and turn around frustration with his handling of the war.
Administration officials said Bush will announce plans to deploy about 20,000 more U.S. troops to join 140,000 already in Iraq — most to Baghdad and 4,000 to volatile Anbar province. They said Bush will call for turning over security of all Iraqi provinces by November, but they cautioned that this did not represent a timetable for a U.S. pullout. Iraqis currently control only three of 18 provinces.
A defense official said Bush will announce an increase in the training of Iraqi security forces through a program in which U.S. trainers live and work within an Iraqi unit.
The president has a tough sell ahead of him, after nearly four years of war and scenes of carnage that have undercut his argument that victory is possible in Iraq.
Democrats in control of the U.S. Congress vowed ahead of the 9 p.m. (0200 GMT on Thursday) address in the White House library that they would fight what they called an escalation of the conflict, which has already claimed more than 3,000 American lives.
Democratic leaders in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, who planned to meet Bush on Wednesday before his speech, said they would seek a vote on his planned troop increase. “In my view, we may be about to make a critical mistake by moving in exactly the wrong direction in Iraq. Instead of a surge we should be looking at a way to begin orderly troop reduction,” said West Virginia Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd.
Many of Bush’s own Republicans expressed unease and a USA Today/Gallup poll said Americans oppose the idea of increasing troop levels in Iraq by 61 percent to 36 percent. “He does understand that it’s important to bring the public back to this war and restore public confidence in support for the mission,” said White House spokesman Tony Snow.
Bush will couple his troop announcement with a new call for Iraq’s government to meet political milestones aimed at ending sectarian violence, aides said. But he was not expected to give the Iraqis a timetable for action. Aides said action on many milestones is already under way, such as an oil-revenue sharing plan, constitutional reform and allowing former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party to return to public life. “We think a lot of those are going to happen naturally and soon,” said a senior administration official.
Bush’s troops plan follows personal commitments from Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to provide more Iraqi troops in Baghdad and elsewhere and a promise not to shield radical Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
The first wave of U.S. troops are to go to Iraq over the next few weeks.
CBS News said Bush intended to send half the new deployment first, with the second half to be phased in over March, April and May if the Iraqis get serious about making Baghdad safer.
New York Republican Rep. Peter King told MSNBC after meeting Bush on Tuesday that the Iraqi government has to help improve security. “And the president is going to make it clear to the Iraqis that there will be consequences if they don’t live up to their end of it,” King said.
Bush will announce he is sending Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the Middle East for talks with regional leaders, urging them to help Iraq’s government. His plan comes a month after the bipartisan Iraq Study Group recommended direct talks with Iran and Syria. Bush, who has rejected direct talks with them, is expected to denounce Iran and Syria in his speech as unhelpful influences in Iraq.