The former secretary of state Colin Powell said Sunday that badly overstretched U.S. forces in Iraq were losing the war there and that a temporary U.S. troop surge probably would not help.
In one of his few commentaries on the war since leaving office, Powell quickly added that the situation could be reversed. He recommended an intense coalition effort to train and support Iraqi security forces and strengthen the government in Baghdad. Powell was deeply skeptical about increasing troop levels, an idea that appears to be gaining ground as President George W. Bush weighs U.S. strategy options.
"There really are no additional troops" to send, Powell said, adding that he agreed with those who say that the U.S. Army is "about broken."
He said he was unsure that new troops could suppress sectarian violence or secure Baghdad.
He urged the United States to do everything possible to prepare Iraqis to take over lead responsibility; the "baton pass," he said, should begin by mid-2007.
"We are losing — we haven't lost — and this is the time, now, to start to put in place the kinds of strategies that will turn this situation around," Powell said on CBS-TV.
Military planners and White House budget analysts have been asked to provide Bush with options for increasing U.S. forces in Baghdad by 20,000 or more and there were signs he is leaning in that direction.
Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the incoming Democratic majority leader, said Sunday that he would "go along with" a troop increase if it were clearly intended to lead to an ultimate withdrawal by early 2008.
Reid supported the proposal of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group to undertake a broad regional effort to gain diplomatic support for a peaceful Iraq.
Powell endorsed another study group idea: opening talks with Syria and Iran.
He has kept a low public profile since leaving office in January 2005, but has emerged at points in the debate over Iraq to weigh in, as when he said that Iraq was embroiled in civil war.
A troop increase, he said Sunday, "cannot be sustained." The thousands of additional U.S. soldiers sent into Baghdad since the summer had been unable to stabilize the city and more probably could not tip the balance, Powell said. The deployment of further troops would, moreover, impose long-term costs on a badly stretched military.
While Reid suggested that he would support an increase only of two or three months, a retired general, Jack Keane, one of five Iraq experts who met with Bush on Dec. 11, called that schedule "impossible." Keane, a former army vice chief of staff, said that Iraq could not be secured before mid-2008. "It will take a couple of months just to get forces in," he said on ABC.
The president's request to military planners and White House budget officials to provide details of what a surge would mean indicates that the option is gaining ground, senior administration officials said. It was discussed extensively during Bush's briefing at the Pentagon on Wednesday, one official said, and the president appeared to be strongly leaning in that direction.
Officials said that options being considered included the deployment of upwards of 50,000 additional troops, but that the political and logistical obstacles to an increase larger than 20,000 to 30,000 troops would be prohibitive.
About 17,000 American troops are now actively involved in efforts to secure Baghdad.
In most scenarios, the troop increase would be accomplished largely by accelerating some scheduled deployments while delaying the departure of units in Iraq.
Powell said that meant it would be "a surge that you'd have to pay for later."
The current strategy stresses stepping up the training of Iraqi forces and handing off to them as soon as possible.
Reid made clear that his support for an increase was conditional. "We have to change course in Iraq," he said on ABC-TV. But in the meantime, he added, Democrats would "give the military anything they want."
Powell, who as chairman of the Joint Chiefs helped lead an earlier U.S.-led coalition to throw Iraqi troops out of Kuwait, said that he was unsure this time whether victory could be achieved.
"If victory means you have got rid of every insurgent, that you have peace throughout the country, I don't see that in the cards right now," Powell said. But it was possible, he said, to install a certain level of order and security.
Powell said the Iraq war had left Americans "a little less safe" by curtailing the forces available should another major crisis arise. But, Powell added, "I think that's all recoverable."
He supported the call for talks with Syria and Iran, though the latter, he said, would be more difficult.
"I have no illusion that either Syria or Iran want to help us in Iraq," Powell said. But there were times, he said, when difficult contacts can be productive.
David E. Sanger and Michael R. Gordon contributed reporting.
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