(WASHINGTON, April 8th, 2004) -- More U.S. troops could be sent to Iraq and other U.S. forces could stay longer than planned to deal with the latest surge in violence, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said.
While Rumsfeld insisted Wednesday that the fighting was not spinning out of control, his remarks were the clearest signal yet that U.S. officials were likely to increase the overall number of troops in Iraq nearly a year after President Bush declared major combat in the country completed.
Gen. John Abizaid, the U.S. commander of the Iraq campaign, and his deputies have not decided whether, or how, to increase the American military presence in Iraq. The focus of discussion was on whether to extend the tours of duty for some of the U.S. troops scheduled to leave by next month after spending a year there.
"You can be certain that if they want more troops, we will sign deployment orders so that they'll have the troops they need," Rumsfeld said at a Pentagon news conference with Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Richard Myers.
The military has made no final decision on troop levels. Abizaid spoke with President Bush on Wednesday and did not ask for more troops then, a senior defense official said on condition of anonymity.
The continuing rotation of forces in Iraq gives American forces an advantage by having about 20,000 more troops than would otherwise be there.
"We're taking advantage of that increase, and we will likely be managing the pace of the redeployments to allow those seasoned troops with experience and relationships with the local populations to see the current situation through," Rumsfeld said.
Some members of Congress said they believed more American troops should be sent to Iraq.
Among them was Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who said there needed to be a different mix of forces -- more linguists, Special Forces and civil affairs units -- to deal with escalating violence while also preparing to return political power to Iraqi civilian authorities.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., also joined the call for more troops.
"Our troops on the ground in Iraq now are too few in number to battle the insurgents and establish the civil order needed to ensure Iraq does not descend into civil war," Lieberman said.
Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., the Senate's senior member and a fierce critic of the war, said he heard "echoes of Vietnam" in the talk of increasing U.S. forces in Iraq.
In response, Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., paraphrased Ho Chi Minh, noting that the North Vietnamese leader said the Vietnam War was won by dividing the American public, not on the battlefield.
"We must win," Smith said. "We must not have the will of the American people broken by the naysayers."
The violence in Iraq has claimed nearly three dozen American lives since last weekend. Rumsfeld said it is the work of a few "thugs, gangs and terrorists" and is not a popular uprising over the U.S.-led occupation.
"The number of people that are involved in those battles are relatively small," Rumsfeld said. "And there's nothing like an army or a major large elements of hundreds of people trying to overthrow or to change the situation. You have a mixture of a small number of terrorists, a small number of militias, coupled with some demonstrations and some lawlessness."
Myers said the fighting came in two broad categories.
West of Baghdad in cities such as Ramadi and Fallujah, the main opposition is "former regime loyalists," which includes supporters of former president Saddam Hussein, and anti-American foreign fighters loyal to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, he said.
In Fallujah, where the civilian contractors were killed and mutilated, raids by troops have netted the arrests of nine people, including some believed responsible, Rumsfeld said.
In the eastern sections of Baghdad and in a half-dozen cities in southern Iraq, the fighting is the doing of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and those who support him, Myers said.
Rumsfeld and Myers said al-Sadr had between 1,000 and 6,000 followers. A Central Command official said Monday that his Al-Mahdi Army numbers about 3,000 fighters.
It's unclear whether al-Sadr's militia is the only group fighting in those areas, Myers said.
American and coalition forces do not control the holy Shiite city of Najaf in southern Iraq, Rumsfeld said. Iraqis asked the coalition to stay out of the city during a pilgrimage, Rumsfeld said. Al-Sadr's militia has been active in Najaf.
While all those attacking U.S. and coalition forces share al-Sadr's anti-American philosophy, there's no evidence of nationwide coordination of the fighting, Myers said. "It's not a Shiite uprising. Sadr has a very small following," he said.