WASHINGTON - President Bush's troop buildup in Baghdad apparently will be bigger and more costly - and perhaps last longer - than it seemed when he unveiled the plan in January as the centerpiece of a new Iraq strategy.
U.S. officials say it's too early to tell whether the troop reinforcements will succeed in containing the sectarian and insurgent violence, but it looks as though the Pentagon is preparing for an expanded commitment - assuming that by summer there are solid signs that the extra effort is yielding significant results.
The Bush plan called for sending 21,500 extra U.S. combat troops to Iraq - mainly to Baghdad - with the last of five brigades arriving by June. The estimated price tag was $5.6 billion. Officials have refused to say exactly how long it would last, but Defense Secretary Robert Gates had suggested that it could be over by fall.
In recent days a different picture has emerged.
The total number of troops required for the plan, while still uncertain, is climbing. When Bush announced the boost of 21,500 combat troops, the Pentagon said still others would be required to go with them in support roles. Its initial estimate of 2,400 support troops has doubled and may go higher still.
The cost also is rising. Administration officials conferred with lawmakers this week about an extra $1 billion, on top of the original $5.6 billion. The actual cost depends on how long the troop reinforcement is sustained.
When asked about the duration of the buildup, Gates has noted that funds for this purpose are only budgeted through September, which marks the end of the government's budget year. This week, however, it was disclosed that Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, a top commander in Iraq, has recommended that the buildup stretch into 2008.
At a news conference Thursday, Gen. David Petraeus, who arrived in Baghdad in February as the top U.S. commander, hinted at a longer-term buildup. "You generally think that if you're going to achieve (the desired results), that it would need to be sustained certainly for some time well beyond summer," he said, adding that his subordinate commanders are looking at options well in advance of when decisions will have to be made.
In contrast, Gates last month told Congress the administration saw a possibility that the buildup could begin to be reversed this fall if Bush's plan yielded good results on the security, economic and political fronts.
"In that event, it seems to me that if that were to all develop over the course of the next months, that in the latter part of this year we could begin drawing down American troops in Iraq. That is essentially the best case story. And that is our hope," Gates said then.
Many in Congress strongly opposed the buildup and are likely to object to it being extended. On Thursday, House Democrats unveiled legislation requiring the withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq by the fall of 2008.
If the troop reinforcement in Iraq is extended beyond September it will create even more turmoil for soldiers and their families, many of whom are wearied by multiple yearlong tours in Iraq and ever-shorter breaks between deployments. Some Army units that are due to complete their tours this summer or fall might have their tours extended by weeks or months. Others now in the U.S. might be sent to Iraq earlier than planned. Army leaders are privately concerned at the cumulative burden on troops.
As of Thursday there were 141,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, according to the Pentagon. That includes two of the five Army brigades designated for the buildup. A third brigade is scheduled to arrive this month, another in April and the last one in May or June.
In addition, Gates said Wednesday that at least another 2,400 would be needed to support the extra combat forces. And he said Petraeus had added still another requirement - about 2,200 more military police to help with an anticipated increase in detainees and for other duties.
Also, it was decided last month that an additional division headquarters - 1,000 soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Division at Fort Stewart, Ga., - should go in March to split Baghdad command and control duties with the 1st Cavalry Division headquarters. The 3rd Infantry headquarters was originally scheduled to go this summer.
Maj. Gen. Joseph Fil Jr., commander of the 1st Cavalry, said Feb. 16 he has requested additional attack helicopters, and Gates said Wednesday that other unspecified requests for extra troops were being studied at the Pentagon.
Gordon England, the deputy defense secretary, told Congress this week that the total number of support troops could approach 7,000.
Stephen Hadley, the president's national security adviser, told reporters Thursday that it should be no surprise that the initial estimates of how many troops would be required for the Baghdad security plan would have to be adjusted.
"As you get into the execution of the plan you learn a lot, conditions change and you make adjustments, and that's what we're going to be doing," Hadley said.
Associated Press reporter Pauline Jelinek contributed to this report.