WASHINGTON – U.S. military commanders have begun studying ways they might increase troops in Iraq should violence spread much more widely, a senior officer said Monday.
Generals believe they have enough forces to handle the attacks that have been coming from various quarters, including the recent violence by a Shiite militia group, but they want to know what is available if the situation gets worse, said the officer, briefing reporters on condition of anonymity.
Separately, President Bush criticized the radical Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, who leads the militia. Over the weekend, supporters rioted in Baghdad and four other cities in fighting that killed eight U.S. troops, a Salvadoran soldier and at least 52 Iraqis.
“This is one person that is deciding that rather than allowing democracy to flourish, he’s going to exercise force,” Bush said. “We just can’t let it stand.”
The senior officer portrayed the weekend’s violence as an attempt by al-Sadr to increase his influence in Iraq ahead of the expected June 30 transfer of power from the U.S.-led occupation to an Iraqi government. The officer is with U.S. Central Command, the military authority overseeing operations in Iraq.
Bush said he is committed to the June 30 deadline despite the violence and questions from some members of his own party whether the date should hold.
“The deadline remains firm,” Bush said in Charlotte, N.C.
Gen. John Abizaid, the head of Central Command, and other senior generals ordered their staff to study options after the outbreak of violence from a previously relatively quiet sector of Iraq: members of the Shiite sect of Islam. Most violence so far has been attributed to Sunni Muslims – either members of Saddam’s Sunni-led government, or Sunni extremists who follow al-Qaida.
The senior officer said the planning for additional troops was only a contingency in case violence spreads much more widely. At this point, the official said, that isn’t believed likely. Most Iraqi Shiites at least tolerate the U.S.-led occupation, and officials tried to paint al-Sadr as a radical outsider with a limited following.
An Iraqi judge has issued a murder arrest for al-Sadr for the killing of another Shiite leader, coalition officials said. The warrant was issued some time ago, but the senior Central Command officer suggested coalition forces had previously avoided going after al-Sadr because it appeared his influence was waning.
He has also been difficult to find, the officer said, except when he is speaking at mosques, where U.S. forces and their Iraqi allies are reluctant to enter for fear of angering Muslims.
The senior Central Command officer said al-Sadr’s militia, the Mahdi Army, would be systematically disarmed. The militia numbers about 3,000 fighters. Many of the U.S. troops were killed retaking police stations in Baghdad that were captured by the militia, the officer said.
Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had raised the prospect Sunday of extending the transfer deadline, questioning whether Iraq would be ready for self-rule.
On Monday, John Kerry, the Massachusetts senator who is the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, called on the administration to explain its post-July 1 security plan.
“This administration has so stubbornly resisted what I’ve been calling for and what others have called for for months, which is a genuine significant outreach to the global community” to assist in Iraqi security, he said.
Bush spoke with reporters Monday after meeting with the family of a soldier who died in Iraq. The president was in Charlotte to speak at Central Piedmont Community College.
In his speech, Bush said, “We’re still being challenged in Iraq, and the reason why is a free Iraq will be a major defeat in the cause of terror. Terrorists can’t stand freedom. They hate free societies.”
“But we will stay the course,” he said. “A free Iraq will change the Middle East. A free Iraq will make the world more peaceful. A free Iraq will make America more secure.”
NOTE: It’s hard to imagine where these troops would come from. There could be a large Reserve/National Guard call up but it would further strain those forces. The Army units best able to deal with the combat in Iraq, 10th Mountain, 101st and 82nd Airborne are all in combat zones now (10th ID is in Afghanistan and the Airbornes in/were in Iraq, 82nd just pulled out, not sure about 101st). That leaves the Marines who would best be able to handle the fighting in Iraq. That would pull a huge force from the Marine Corp. One bad thing is large number of troops are mostly support and not combat. That means the guys you want out there, the combat grunts, are quite few. Even Mechanized units are not pure grunts. Most Mech troops rather stay in their vehicles then get out and walk the streets. This is not to blast the military, even though tanks and IFVs get most of the focus from the Army than infantry, they also supply most of the firepower in a division. It also should be noted that the military has gone from the late 90’s “thinking about how to fight guerilla wars” to the current “fighting a guerilla war.”