<!--:es-->U.S. considers more troops for Iraq<!--:-->

U.S. considers more troops for Iraq

WASHINGTON – President Bush is weighing a short-term U.S. troop increase in Iraq, his spokesman said on Tuesday as he denied reports of a rift between the White House and resistant Pentagon chiefs.

With the White House predicting Washington will spend more than $2 billion a week on Iraq well into next year, a senior official declined to speculate on the cost of an extra 20,000 troops — a figure U.S. media say Bush is weighing.

A temporary infusion of forces into Iraq was an idea the high-powered Iraq Study Group considered acceptable in its report, which also recommended Bush withdraw most U.S. forces from combat there by early 2008.

“It’s something that’s being explored,” White House spokesman Tony Snow told reporters.

“The president has asked people to take a look at things and he continues to consult with the Joint Chiefs. I am not going to get into what the Joint Chiefs have or have not said.” Bush, his public support over the war falling as U.S. and Iraqi casualty figures mount, is expected to announce a new Iraq strategy in January.

Snow rejected a Washington Post report of a rift with the Pentagon. “I think people are trying to create a fight between the president and the Joint Chiefs where one does not exist,” he said.

In an interview with the Post on Tuesday, Bush said he plans to expand the size of the U.S. military to deal with the long-term fight against terrorism. The paper said the increase was for the broader fight against Islamic extremists around the world rather than specifically for the conflict in Iraq.

“I’m inclined to believe that we do need to increase our troops — the Army, the Marines,” Bush said according to the Post.

Bush gave no estimates on how many more troops would be needed, but his call came less than a week after the Army’s chief of staff told lawmakers that the Army, under strain from Iraq war commitments, must keep growing to avoid breaking the active-duty forces.

More than 2,900 U.S. troops and tens of thousands of Iraqis have been killed since the U.S.-led invasion to overthrow Saddam Hussein in 2003. U.S. Army medical experts said suicides among U.S. soldiers in Iraq doubled in 2005 compared with 2004 while a Pentagon report Monday said violence in Iraq was at record levels. U.S. costs for the Iraq war will exceed $110 billion in the fiscal year through October 2007 — more than $2 billion a week — approaching the record reached in the prior fiscal year, White House budget director Rob Portman said. He declined to comment on the possible cost of sending an extra 20,000 troops to Iraq. A prominent think-tank on Tuesday joined the chorus pressing for a radical rethink on Iraq.

The Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) said an international effort was needed to prevent Iraq collapsing into a “failed and fragmented state” whose Shi’ite-Sunni Arab conflict could draw in its neighbors in a proxy war. “Hollowed-out and fatally weakened, the Iraqi state today is prey to armed militias, sectarian forces and a political class that, by putting short-term personal benefit ahead of long term national interests, is complicit in Iraq’s tragic destruction.”

The Pentagon said the Mehdi Army militia of radical Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr had replaced al Qaeda as the biggest threat to security.

Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who owes his position to Sadr’s support, has vowed to dismantle the militias but has done little so far to rein them in. The Pentagon report said the Mehdi Army exerted “significant influence” over the government. The ICG warned in its report of tensions between the Mehdi Army and the Badr Brigades, a militia loyal to the powerful Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. “Both Shi’ite paramilitary groups are engaged in a dangerous tug-of-war over the holy city of Najaf,” the report said. It took issue with the Iraq Study Group’s call to speed up the handover of security control to Iraqi forces, even as U.S. officials prepared to hand over Najaf Wednesday.

Iraq’s vice president said he favored a timetable for a withdrawal but that troops could not leave until Iraqi forces were able to handle the situation on their own. “We work closely with the Americans who want their soldiers home. But withdrawal cannot come before the Iraqi forces are capable of handling the situation on their own,” Tareq al-Hashemi told reporters in New York after talks with United Nations Secretary-general Kofi Annan.