WASHINGTON -- At least 15,000 American troops who were scheduled to return from Iraq soon would remain in the country to help quell the rising insurgency under a proposal presented yesterday to President Bush, senior Defense Department officials said.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and General Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, insisted that the situation is not out of control and that American troops face relatively small numbers of extremists.
Other Pentagon officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the total force could be maintained at the current 135,000 -- up from 118,000 in late February -- by extending the stay of some soldiers who have been in Iraq for a year and are scheduled to return home even as fresh replacements arrive. The net effect would be to make more forces available to mount expanded operations across the country.
Rumsfeld and Myers did not rule out the possibility that additional units could be sent to Iraq beyond those included in the rotation plan.
"You can be certain that if they want more troops, we will sign deployment orders," Rumsfeld added at the hastily scheduled news conference, as US troops in Iraq engaged in some of the fiercest fighting since major combat operations were declared over last May.
He explained that because of a troop rotation, the United States has a planned increase in the number of forces in the region.
"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," he said. "And since we have a larger number than normal, that is an advantage that we can certainly use to our benefit."
Rumsfeld's comments were the clearest acknowledgment yet by senior Bush administration officials that new attacks by Shi'ite Muslim militias and the continuing struggle against enemy fighters in the Sunni Triangle, north and west of Baghdad, may be too much for the previously planned US force levels to handle.
In the past week, 46 US troops have been killed and scores of others wounded.
The plan presented to Bush also suggests that earlier pledges to American troops that they would serve only a year in Iraq are expected to be broken because of the changing security situation. Many security analysts had predicted that the original US invasion force was inadequate to defeat and then pacify the country of 25 million people.
"Rumsfeld wanted to go in with 75,000 and had to be coaxed into 130,000," said Melvin Goodman, professor of international relations at the National War College in Washington and a former CIA analyst. "There has been tremendous pressure on the uniformed military not to ask for more troops. That's the last thing they want to do, because then the whole Vietnamization metaphor will be raised, which they are afraid of."
Late last year, Pentagon officials said they planned to reduce the overall troop presence in Iraq from more than 130,000 to about 105,000 by this summer. That gradual reduction was intended to be achieved through troop rotations that would temporarily raise the total number during the transition period, but then would allow a phased drawdown as the handover to Iraqi sovereignty approached in June.
US officials stressed yesterday that no final decision has been made about how many troops would have their mission in Iraq extended. But they acknowledged that General John Abizaid, commander of the US Central Command, told President Bush and his national security team in a series of secure video links that US commanders are already using some units slated to complete their tours to help address the worsening security situation.
The First Armored Division, a tank unit based in Wiesbaden, Germany, and possibly other units would remain in Iraq for an indefinite period, according to the plan, forcing soldiers to stay longer than the one-year limit that Pentagon officials previously placed on tours of duty.
Myers said the US-led coalition forces face fierce resistance in Ramadi, Fallujah, and other locations in the Sunni Triangle that have been centers of insurgency by former loyalists to Saddam Hussein and foreign terrorists for nearly a year.
But in the southern regions of the country militias loyal to fugitive Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr -- numbering as many as 6,000 -- have effectively taken control of Najaf and are mounting attacks against US forces in several other areas that had previously been stable. Rumsfeld said that US forces could not guarantee the safety of Iraqis and those on an Shi'ite pilgrimage in the area in coming days.
Under the deployment plan discussed yesterday, some American units would probably be moved to other areas of Iraq to try to confront the new outbreaks of the violence.
While some members of Congress have used the recent violence as evidence that the United States is being sucked into a quagmire with no exit strategy in sight, some key lawmakers said yesterday that beefing up the US force is only viable option.
Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, said a speech on the Senate floor that Iraq does not have the hallmarks of the Vietnam War, but warned that it would be "disastrous" to show weakness.
"The new violence and the fast-approaching deadline for the handover of sovereignty has made more urgent the need to deploy more US forces to Iraq," Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, Democrat of Connecticut, said in a statement.
Myers yesterday defended Rumsfeld's original decision to overrule some military commanders who recommended last year that the United States would need at least 150,000 troops for at least several years to occupy the country and set it on the path toward democracy. Former Army chief General Eric Shinseki was chastized by his civilian bosses for saying before the war that 200,000 American troops might be required.
"My personal feeling is that it was not a mistake," Myers said yesterday of the original plan. "There was a lot of thought given to exactly how the campaign would unfold."
Myers insisted that the military's needs were paramount.
"I think one thing we've always said from day one, before major combat began, is that what the combat commander on the ground needs in terms of resources -- men, women, material -- he'll get," he said. "And that's still the promise today."