BAGHDAD - The U.S. military's top general said Monday that the Joint Chiefs of Staff is weighing a range of possible new directions in Iraq, including, if President Bush deems it necessary, an even bigger troop buildup.
Making no predictions, Marine Gen. Peter Pace revealed that he and the chiefs of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force are obliged to consider various troop-level scenarios before September, when Bush will receive an assessment of the Iraq situation from his top commander there, Gen. David Petraeus.
"We're (doing) the kind of thinking that we need to do and be prepared for whatever it's going to look like two months from now," he said in an interview with two reporters traveling overnight with him from Washington aboard an Air Force C-17 cargo jet.
"That way, if we need to plus up or come down" in numbers of troops in Iraq, then the details will have been studied and the military services will be in position to carry out whatever policy Bush chooses, Pace said.
He mentioned no potential range of increases or decreases in force levels. Another possibility being considered, he said, is maintaining the current level of troops for some period beyond September.
In a separate interview later at the U.S. Embassy after conferring with Pace and Petraeus, Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the No. 2 commander in Iraq, said he did not foresee requesting more troops.
"Right now I can't find an assessment where I would say I need more troops," he said, adding that he is confident that by September he will be able to give Petraeus his advice on how the troop buildup is working.
"My assessment right now is, I need more time" to understand how the current offensive targeting al- Qaida in Iraq terrorists is working and how it could lead to political progress in the months ahead, Odierno said. "I'm seeing some progress now here in Iraq. We have really just started what the Iraqis term 'liberating' them from al Qaida. What I've got to determine is what do I need in order to continue that progress so that the political piece can then take hold and Iraqi security forces can hold this for the long term."
There are now about 158,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, reflecting a boost of approximately 30,000 to carry out the new strategy that Bush announced in January. The strategy is focused on providing better security for Iraqis in Baghdad, but the intended effect -- a political reconciliation between the Sunnis and Shiites -- has yet to be achieved, and many in Congress are clamoring to begin withdrawing troops soon.
Some on the Joint Chiefs had argued against the troop boost in January, in part out of concern that it could not be sustained long enough to have the desired effect and that it put too much strain on the military.
The chiefs for a number of weeks have been studying the timing of a possible U.S. military transition away from today's combat-oriented mission to one focused mainly on support functions like training the Iraqi security forces while also protecting Iraq's borders and continuing the fight against terrorists.
Pace said the chiefs intend to be ready with recommendations on that for Bush by September.
Without opining on any new course of action in Iraq, Pace stressed in the interview his concern that multiple combat tours for many in the Army and Marine Corps could tear at the fabric of the military. He said that is one reason he is visiting the troops now - to hear their concerns, assess their morale and to explain to them why he advocated extending Army tours from 12 months to 15 months.
He said he also would stop in Germany this week to meet with family members of military units that are affected by tour extensions. These visits are intended to give him a sense of how the military as a whole is holding up under the strain of the Iraq war, now more than four years old, and will be one important factor in what the Joint Chiefs collectively recommend to Bush in September, Pace said.
On this week's visit Pace planned meetings with Petraeus and other top commanders in Baghdad as well as with U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker.
Over the next several weeks the Joint Chiefs will do their own Iraq assessment, which at this stage is being developed separately from Petraeus' assessment in order to "stay out of `groupthink,'" Pace said.
When he returns to Washington in September, Petraeus will brief the Joint Chiefs on his thinking, and the chiefs will take that into account when they make their own recommendations to Bush, Pace said.
In the interview, Pace was asked whether, as the president's top military adviser, he feels political pressure amid a heated and prolonged Iraq debate in Congress and the approach of the 2008 elections.
"I don't feel any pressure" of that sort, he said.
Pace unexpectedly was informed in June that he will be replaced as Joint Chiefs chairman on Oct. 1. In announcing the switch, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he decided that although he had wanted to keep Pace for a second two-year term, it appeared that his Senate confirmation hearing would turn into a battle over the past four years in Iraq. Bush instead nominated Adm. Michael Mullen for the job.
Pace has said publicly he chose to remain until the end of his current term on Oct. 1 rather than resign when Gates decided to replace him. In the interview, he said that although September is shaping up as a hectic month in Washington, he is determined to make yet another trip to Iraq before retiring.
© 2007 The Associated Press.