Bush sends 20,000 more troops to Iraq in 'last-chance' plan

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The Independent US

President Bush was last night ordering more than 20,000 extra troops to Iraq and new financial aid, as part of a "last-chance" plan to end the sectarian fighting that has brought the country to the brink of disintegration, and allow the US to extract itself from the increasingly unpopular war.

In a long-awaited, 20-minute prime-time address from the White House library, Mr Bush acknowledged that it had been a mistake not to deploy more American and Iraqi troops earlier, above all in Baghdad, and that the present strategy had not worked. But, according to excerpts of the speech released last night, he insisted that failure in Iraq was unacceptable, and that the US had to achieve victory, albeit on a more modest scale.

To step back now "would force a collapse of the Iraqi government", Mr Bush said. This would result in "our troops being forced to stay in Iraq even longer, and confront an enemy that is even more lethal. But by increasing support and helping Iraqis break the current cycle of violence, we can hasten the day our troops begin coming home."

At the same time, Mr Bush turned the heat up on Iraq's prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, presented as co-author of the plan. "America's commitment is not open-ended," the President warned. If the Iraqi government does not follow through on its promises, it would lose the support of both the American and its own public. "Now is the time to act," he said. "The Prime Minister understands this."

Under the plan, the President is sending 17,500 more troops to Baghdad, with the first units arriving early next week. Meanwhile, 4,000 Marines will be deployed in Anbar province, stronghold of the Sunni insurgents, where three US soldiers were killed yesterday.

The White House will seek an extra $6.8bn (£3.5bn) from Congress for the new initiative, including $5.6bn for the new troop deployment, and the rest, $1.2bn, for economic assistance, much of it for quick response local projects that will have an immediate impact on ordinary citizens.

In return, Mr Maliki is pledging to pour $10bn into reconstruction, and contribute three new Iraqi brigades to the joint effort to stabilise Baghdad. Crucially, the prime minister is promising to crack down on militants and insurgents of every hue. Thus far Mr Maliki, a Shia, has failed to take on militias of his sect ­ above all the Mehdi Army of the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, a force stronger than the central government's own army. This time however, White House aides say, Mr Maliki has assured Mr Bush that the Baghdad operation "will make no difference between Shia, Sunni or other types of illegal militia or illegal activity".

Nonetheless, criticism was growing even before the President's speech, with Democrats and an increasing number of Republican Senators doubting whether the troop boost ­ obtained by expanding tours of duty and dipping into the National Guard ­ would make a difference at this late stage.

Mr Bush's goal is for Iraqis to take total charge of security by November. But all US estimates of Iraqi troop capability thus far have turned out to be wildly over-optimistic, and Republican leaders too fear this new commitment coulds turn out to be open ended, despite the President's assurances last night.

Leaders of the Democratic majority promised at least symbolic votes denouncing the troop increase. Some Democrats want a cap on funding for Iraq, at least until Congress has voted to approve Mr Bush's plans. That oversight starts today, as both Condoleezza Rice, the Secretary of State, and the new Pentagon chief, Robert Gates, testify on Capitol Hill about the new strategy.

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