WASHINGTON - President Bush outlined a tactical shift to the U.S. war in Iraq Wednesday night, but the basic strategy remains in place: a long-term and high-risk effort to stabilize Iraq's most violent neighborhoods while training Iraqi security forces to take over the job, administration officials, military officers and analysts said.
The refocused campaign, which will double the American combat forces in Baghdad, is expected to be long, difficult and bloody, according to the plan's authors, and will impose additional hardships on U.S. troops by extending the combat tours of troops in Iraq, by accelerating the deployments of soldiers and Marines already scheduled to go this year and by re-mobilizing National Guard brigades that have served combat tours in Iraq.
Effectively, Bush's plan will commit 21,500 more American soldiers to Baghdad's most violent neighborhoods and keep them locked in battle there with sectarian militias and death squads. Some 4,000 Marines will be sent to Anbar province west of Baghdad, raising the overall troop level in Iraq to just under 160,000, about what it was two years ago, and adding $5.6 billion to the expanding cost of the war.
"We have to be prepared for a bloody year, because the enemy will fight us," said Frederick W. Kagan, a senior analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, who developed the plan and was sent to Capitol Hill this week to brief members of Congress. He said it would take at least 18 months to show success.
"We have never had a plan to defeat the insurgency," said retired Gen. Jack M. Keane, recently retired Army vice chief of staff, who also worked with the White House to develop the plan. "That is what this plan is all about."
Yet Pentagon officials were unable to explain how Bush's outline differs in significant measure from "Operation Forward Together," which he launched with great fanfare with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in July. Under that approach, thousands of U.S. combat troops were shifted into Baghdad from outlying locations. But the plan backfired, with violence rocketing to record levels.
This time, Bush said, additional American troops will stay in the neighborhoods they clear. The Iraqi government no longer will restrict U.S. forces from operating against the Shiite militia of Muqtada al-Sadr, a radical Shiite leader and a key political ally of al-Maliki.
Senior military analysts were not impressed that the tactical shifts announced by Bush are significant.
"Six brigades, the so-called surge, is not going to decisively change the course of the war," said Robert Killebrew, a retired Army strategist.
"What we are hoping is that it will buy time for us to position the Iraqis to take over."
He and others described the president's strategy as high risk, because it raised expectations that visible progress can be made amid the violent chaos of Baghdad.
Senior military officers are worried about the long-term effect of the increased troop commitment to Iraq, given that the military services are already struggling to recruit and retain high-quality troops.
Unexpected additional deployments, officers said, might be the final straw for soldiers and Marines who have deployed to Iraq two, three or even four times already.