WASHINGTON - In a sign that top commanders are divided over what course to pursue in Iraq, the Pentagon said Wednesday that it won't make a single, unified recommendation to President Bush during next month's strategy assessment, but instead will allow top commanders to make individual presentations.
Military analysts called the move unusual for an institution that ordinarily does not air its differences in public, especially while its troops are deployed in combat.
"The professional military guys are going to the non-professional military guys and saying 'Resolve this,'" said Jeffrey White, a military analyst for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "That's what it sounds like."
White said it suggests that the military commanders want to be able to distance themselves from Iraq strategy by making it clear that whatever course is followed is the president's decision, not what commanders agreed on.
Bush has said on several occasions that he will follow the recommendation of Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, but the Pentagon plan makes certain that other points of view are heard.
Morrell said the commanders will make their presentations to Bush at around the same time that Petraeus appears before Congress to assess progress in Iraq in mid September.
Morrell said that those making presentations to the president would include Marine Gen. Peter Pace, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. William Fallon, the commander of U.S. Central Command, which has responsibility for U.S. military actions in the Middle East, Army Gen. George Casey, the chief of staff of the Army, and Petraeus. In addition, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates will share his opinion with the president.
Pentagon commanders are known to be divided over how to proceed in Iraq.
Pentagon officials have told McClatchy Newspapers that Casey, who was the top commander in Iraq, wants the U.S. to draw down forces and focus on training the Iraqi forces, as it did during his tenure in Iraq, and worries about the strain the war is having on the Army.
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Earlier this week, the Los Angeles Times reported that Pace would recommend reducing the number of troops in Baghdad because the deployments are straining the military.
Petraeus, however, is expected to argue that the number of U.S. troops should be kept at their current levels, saying that the increase in U.S. forces this year is beginning to reduce sectarian violence.
Gates' position is not known, but he was a member of the Iraq Study Group, which advocated a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. The surge, which sent an additional 28,000 troops to Iraq between February and June, was crafted as the secretary took over the department in December, and it is not considered his plan.
The surge, which called for about 28,000 additional troops into Baghdad, has pushed the number of troops serving in Iraq to its highest level since Saddam Hussein's regime fell in April 2003.
The increase was intended to reduce violence so that Iraq's politicians would have time to broker deals on some of the country's most divisive issues. Instead, Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's government is floundering and Iraq's various political and ethnic factions are battling for control of the country.
An assessment by 16 U.S. intelligence agencies last week foresaw little progress during the next 12 months in efforts to reconcile Iraq's warring ethnic groups. It also reported that civilian deaths and violence remained at high levels.
Morrell said that making individual presentations about Iraq policy rather than trying to reach a consensus before talking to the president will lead to a more honest discussion.
Gates is "looking for a way to sort of make sure that the normal bureaucratic massaging that sometimes eliminates the rough edges or the sharp differences between individuals does not victimize this process so that the president can get distinct - if that's the way it turns out to be - points of view on where we are and where we need to go," Morrell said.
At the same time, Morrell made it clear that the decision rests with the president, not the military.
"I think once [the president] receives the advice from Gen. Petraeus - and as I have outlined - and others, my understanding is that he has a decision to make," Morrell said.
McClatchy Newspapers 2007