WASHINGTON -- Deep divisions are emerging at the top of the US military over the occupation of Iraq, with some senior officers saying the United States is facing the prospect of casualties for years without achieving its stated goal of establishing a free, democratic Iraq.
Their major worry is that the United States is not winning the support of Iraqis. That view is far from universal, but it is spreading and being expressed publicly for the first time.
Major General Charles H. Swannack Jr., the commander of the 82d Airborne Division who spent much of the year in western Iraq, said he thinks that at the tactical level at which fighting occurs, the US military is winning. But when asked whether he thinks the United States is losing, he said, ''I think strategically, we are."
Army Colonel Paul Hughes, who last year was the first director of strategic planning for the US occupation authority in Baghdad, said he agrees with that view and noted that a pattern of winning battles while losing a war characterized the American failure in Vietnam. ''Unless we ensure that we have coherency in our policy, we will lose strategically," he said in an interview Friday.
The emergence of sharp differences over US strategy has set off a debate on how to end the festering insurgency that has stymied some reconstruction efforts, made many Iraqis feel less safe, and created uncertainty about who actually will run the country after the scheduled handover of political sovereignty June 30.
Both inside and outside the armed forces, specialists generally advocate that the US military remain in Iraq but change its approach. Some argue for more troops, others for less, but they generally agree that the United States should scale down its stated goals. They are troubled by evidence that the United States is losing ground with the Iraqi public.
Some officers say the overhaul of US policy should begin with the ouster of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, whom they see as responsible for strategic and tactical blunders over the past year. Several officers interviewed said a profound anger at Rumsfeld is building within the Army and those around him.
A senior general at the Pentagon said he thinks the United States is on the road to defeat. ''It is doubtful we can go on much longer like this," he said. ''The American people may not stand for it -- and they should not."
Asked who was to blame, the general indicated Rumsfeld and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul L. Wolfowitz. ''I do not believe we had a clearly defined war strategy, end state, and exit strategy before we commenced our invasion," he said. ''Had someone like Colin Powell been the chairman [of the Joint Chiefs of Staff], he would not have agreed to send troops without a clear exit strategy. The current [Office of the Secretary of Defense] refused to listen or adhere to military advice."
Like several other officers interviewed, the general spoke on condition of anonymity.
Wolfowitz said he does not think the United States is losing in Iraq, and said no senior officer has expressed that thought to him either. ''I am sure that there are some out there" who think that, he said in an interview.
''I don't mean to sound Pollyanna-ish -- we all know that we're facing a tough problem," Wolfowitz added. But, ''I think the course we've set is the right one, which is moving as rapidly as possible to Iraqi self-government and Iraqi self-defense."
The top US commander in the war also said he strongly disagrees with the view that the United States is heading toward defeat in Iraq. ''We are not losing, militarily," Army General John Abizaid said in an interview Friday. He said the US military is winning tactically. But he stopped short of being as positive about the overall trend. Rather, he said, ''Strategically, I think there are opportunities."
The prisoner abuse scandal and the continuing car bombings and US casualties ''create the image of a military that's not being effective in the counterinsurgency," he said, but in reality, ''there are some good signals out there."
Commanders on the ground in Iraq seconded that cautiously optimistic view.
A Pentagon consultant said officials with whom he works on Iraq policy continue to show a happy face publicly but privately are grim about the situation in Baghdad. When it comes to discussions of the administration's Iraq policy, he said, ''It's 'Dead Man Walking.' "
Like many in the special forces community, defense consultant Michael Vickers advocates radically trimming the US presence in Iraq, making it much more like the one in Afghanistan, where there are 20,000 troops, and almost none in the capital, Kabul. The US military has a very small presence in the daily life of Afghans. Basically, it focuses its attention on fighting pockets of Taliban and Al Qaeda holdouts. And it has not tried to disarm the militias that control much of the country.
In addition to trimming the US troop presence, a young Army general said, the United States should curtail its ambitions in Iraq. ''That strategic objective of a free, democratic, de-Ba'athified Iraq is grandiose and unattainable," he said.
A long-term problem for any administration is that it may be difficult for the American public to tell whether the United States is winning or losing, and the prospect of continued casualties raises the question of how long the public will tolerate the fighting.
''Iraq might have been worth doing at some price," Vickers said. ''But it isn't worth doing at any price. And the price has gone very high."