WASHINGTON (AP) _ Mindful of long-term U.S. interests, military and diplomatic strategists seeking to salvage President Bush's latest Iraq war plan are beginning to shift gears while buying time for Iraqis to resolve their differences.
Pressure to show results is growing in the U.S., even as more troops arrive.
Adding to the anxiety is the rising American death toll. The military announced Wednesday that gunbattles and roadside bombs killed seven soldiers and two Marines the day before, bringing the total death toll since the war began to around 3,430.
The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, in collaboration with new U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker, is putting the final touches on a document spelling out in new detail how they intend to implement Bush's strategy announced in January. Bush ordered an extra 21,500 combat troops to Iraq in hopes that more firepower in Baghdad would tamp down sectarian violence and enable rival factions to coalesce.
The Petraeus and Crocker plan, known in military parlance as a campaign plan, makes what one military officer in Baghdad called course corrections without changing the basic Bush strategy, which was built on the belief that political reconciliation in Baghdad could not happen until better security was established.
Under consideration is a large and rapid increase in the size of the Iraqi army to fill the security gaps that are anticipated once the extra U.S. troops begin to leave, perhaps early next year, according to an official knowledgeable of the planning. There are now about 144,000 in the Iraqi army; any increases would have to be worked out with the Iraqi government, in part because they would have to pay some of the cost.
National Public Radio reported Wednesday that Petraeus and Crocker want to nearly double the size of the Iraqi army.
During the rocky tenure of Petraeus's predecessor, Gen. George Casey, a greater emphasis was placed on hastening the transition of security, political and economic responsibilities to the Shiite-led Iraqi government, which has battled a Sunni-led and al-Qaida-fueled insurgency.
Petraeus has focused more on identifying hardened sectarians in the political system and security forces and persuading Iraqi leaders to remove them. His new plan also envisions more emphasis on negotiating with elements of the insurgency that are judged to be potentially willing to reconcile, one official said.
Petraeus has said he plans to report to Washington in September on how the Bush strategy is working. One key question then will be whether to reduce U.S. troop levels, which the Pentagon says now stand at 147,000. About another 10,000 troops are scheduled to arrive over the coming month, mainly in the Baghdad area.
The implications of a U.S. failure are grim and extend beyond the politics of a war that, after more than four years of fighting, has drawn most Americans to the view that it was a mistake to begin. Senior civilian and military officials believe the United States has a long-term interest in assuring the stability of Iraq _ not just to restore a society that collapsed after the U.S. invasion in 2003, but also to preserve wider U.S. interests.
Pressure on the administration to succeed in Iraq comes not only from the Democratic-led Congress _ including some members of the president's own party _ but also from the inescapable fact that the U.S. military _ particularly the Army and the Marine Corps _ are getting worn down by the unrelenting pace of fighting.
Deputy White House spokesman Tony Fratto said the Petraeus plan is not a new war strategy.
``These are the tactics designed to help make the (existing) strategy work,'' he said, adding that it ``will be completed soon, in consultation with officials in Washington.'' The Washington Post, which was first to report on the plan in its Wednesday editions, said it is scheduled to be finished by the end of the month.
``The report is classified because we don't want to signal all of our intended plans to those trying to defeat the U.S., coalition and Iraqis who are trying to create a stable and secure Iraq, therefore, we're not going to discuss details.,'' Fratto said.
Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute think tank, who returned last week from a weeklong visit to Iraq, said in an interview that it was to be expected that Petraeus and Crocker would do a ``soup-to-nuts reassessment'' of the situation this spring, since they arrived after the strategy was already in place.
Kagan, who said he has not seen the campaign plan, said he sees little chance of _ or reason to _ switch strategies.
``I don't think there's another viable military option in Iraq at this point that differs dramatically from what we're doing,'' Kagan said.
Stephen Biddle, a military expert at the Council of Foreign Relations and a member of an assessment team whose work was used by Petraeus and Crocker to develop their new plan, said in an interview that expanding the size of the Iraqi army will be difficult, mainly because of the sectarian tensions that have hardened over time.
``It's hard to get a non-sectarian military to begin with,'' let alone expand it quickly, he said, stressing that he was offering his personal view and was not authorized to discuss the work he did for Petreaus and Crocker.
U.S. officials say security is improving as thousands more U.S. troops arrive in Baghdad neighborhoods, but they acknowledge that more gains are needed and that the Iraqi government must move faster to fulfill its obligation to pass key legislation and take other actions, including eliminating sectarian death squads.
Adm. William Fallon, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, told a congressional panel May 3 that he has asked his staff to take a longer-term look at Iraq to consider what kind of relationship is possible.
``I envision that we will want to be _ and we will be asked to be _ in Iraq for some period of time,'' Fallon said. He referred to ``an enduring presence'' of U.S. forces in Iraq, not to fight insurgents but to train Iraqis and to support their developing ground, sea and air forces in ways that U.S. forces do elsewhere on the globe.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates spoke two weeks ago of U.S. forces remaining in Iraq ``for a protracted period of time,'' with Iraqi government agreement, to provide logistical and other kinds of support.
But those kinds of long-term arrangements may not be possible unless the situation in Baghdad is fixed soon.