Bush ups troop level to salvage Iraq mission

In a tactical shift, he defies Democrats and advisory panel; raises troop strength by over 20,000.

US PRESIDENT George W. Bush yesterday announced that he was sending 21,500 more troops to Iraq as he conceded for the first time that it was a mistake not to have ordered a military build-up earlier.

The last-ditch effort to salvage a US mission in an unpopular war will push the American troop presence in Iraq to its highest level since 2003. More significantly, it thrust the Bush administration into its first major confrontation with a Democrat-controlled Congress.

Riding on fervent anti-war sentiments of Americans, the Democrats – and even Republicans with an eye on the 2008 elections – were bent on blocking the troop increase.

But even as Mr Bush spoke, troops were boarding planes heading for Iraq from bases around the United States.

Embracing a major tactical shift in the war, the President warned of dire consequences of failure in Iraq.

“Where mistakes have been made, the responsibility rests with me,” he said in a prime-time address to the nation. “To step back now would force a collapse of the Iraqi government.

“Such a scenario would result in our troops being forced to stay in Iraq even longer, and confront an enemy that is even more lethal. If we increase our support at this crucial moment, and help the Iraqis break the current cycle of violence, we can hasten the day our troops begin coming home.”

But the “New Way Forward”, as Mr Bush calls it, also defied the recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group and the advice of top generals who see little benefit in a troop surge.

The push will see 17,500 soldiers in all going to Baghdad and 4,000 to the volatile Anbar province, an Al-Qaeda sanctuary in western Iraq. The first wave was expected to arrive in days, the rest within weeks, joining about 130,000 already in Iraq.

The plan will also add US$1.2 billion (S$1.9 billion) in reconstruction aid and let Iraqi forces take the lead in joint combat operations. The Iraqis are promising to deploy 10,000 to 12,000 troops of their own to Baghdad by next month.

The White House strategy amounts to a huge gamble on Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki’s willingness — and ability — to deliver on promises he has consistently failed to keep: to disband Shiite militias, pursue national reconciliation and make good on commitments for Iraqi forces to handle security operations in Baghdad.

Mr Bush, however, made clear that US commitment to Iraq would not be “open-ended” – establishing “benchmarks” for Baghdad to meet in an effort to ease sectarian violence and stabilise the country.

This was not enough to appease his opponents in Congress – or demonstrators who gathered outside the White House gates calling for an end to the war during the President’s 20-minute speech on Wednesday night.

Two prominent Democrats considering a run for the White House – Mr Barack Obama and Ms Hillary Clinton – said that the President should respond to voters’ concerns about the Iraq war.

Ms Clinton said: “The President simply has not received the message sent loudly and clearly by the American people, that we desperately need a new course. “The President has not offered a new direction. Instead, he will continue to take us down the wrong road, only faster.”

The strategy 17,500 extra troops for Baghdad; 4,000 more Marines for volatile Anbar province.

More US civilian workers to help coordinate reconstruction, and more money for rebuilding.

No talks with Iran and Syria on Iraq, but intensified efforts to counter their influence.

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