Sunday, July 30, 2006

US in quiet U-turn on Iraq troop numbers

Financial Times
US in quiet U-turn on Iraq troop numbers
By Edward Luce and Caroline Daniel in Washington

The US administration has quietly reversed its goal from whittling down troop numbers in Iraq before the mid-term congressional elections in November.

A Pentagon spokesman on Friday confirmed that US troop levels in Iraq rose to 132,000 during the past week – the highest since late May – from 127,000 at the start of the week. The spokesman said troop numbers often fluctuated and “there might be temporary spikes during periods of troop rotation”.

However, analysts said an increase in troop numbers was more likely than a reduction because the number of sectarian killings in Iraq had almost doubled since the start of the year. The rise will prompt fears that the US is becoming increasingly bogged down in an unwinnable conflict.

On Thursday, the Pentagon said it would extend for up to 120 days the 3,700-strong deployment of the 172nd Stryker brigade in Iraq, among other rotations. There were 3,169 Iraqis killed in June, compared with 1,778 in January.

Richard Armitage, who was US deputy secretary of state until January 2005, said: “The US has almost totally reversed the troop situation from two months ago. The danger is that this is too little and too late and that the US will turn into a bystander in an Iraqi civil war it does not have sufficient resources to prevent.”

The rise in US troop levels comes as the world’s attention is on Lebanon but also coincides with a reported upsurge in anti-US sentiment in Baghdad’s Shia neighbourhoods following the launch of the US-backed Israeli campaign against Hizbollah.

This week Nouri al-Maliki, Iraqi prime minister, agreed to a joint US-Iraq military operation to regain control of Baghdad.

George W. Bush, US president, also faces growing difficulties with Iraq’s new government, which is making anti-US noises to shore up its credibility with Iraqis. Mr Maliki is under domestic pressure to demand that trials of US soldiers take place in Iraq. The US says this is not possible.

However, US officials deny that the new campaign to stabilise Baghdad undermines Mr Bush’s promise that “as the Iraqis stand up we will stand down” – a phrase he has almost stopped using. In a departure from Mr Bush’s normally upbeat language, he this week said the violence in Baghdad was “terrible”.

Although the violence has shifted from an anti-US insurgency to a sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shia groups, Iraq experts fear Shia militias will see US troops as an easy target. There are also concerns that the combined US-Iraqi force of 75,000 will be insufficient to regain control of Baghdad.

Kenneth Pollack, a former US National Security Council official, said: “The numbers should probably be roughly double what they are. We are seeing the right plan but completely inadequate resources to make it work.”