White House Downplays Possible Rift with Pentagon

The White House denies that military leaders at the Pentagon and civilian leaders at the White House are at loggerheads over the possibility of a troop surge in Iraq. White House spokesman Tony Snow said a temporary increase in troop strength was among the ideas being explored. But he said there is no conflict between the White House and the Joint Chiefs of Staff over the matter.

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At the Pentagon, the White House, on Capitol Hill, and in all those think tanks around Washington, D.C., the buzzword when it comes to Iraq is surge. The debate right now is focused on whether an increase of American troops could help bring violence there under control. Coming up, we'll have analysis from a former member of the National Security Council, and hear how the debate is shaping up in Congress.

But first, NPR's Tom Bowman reports from the Pentagon.

TOM BOWMAN: The White House today brushed aside talk of a dispute over whether there should be a surge of forces in Iraq - anywhere from 15,000 to 40,000 more American troops. Pentagon sources say the idea is being seriously considered but agreed that the Joint Chiefs of Staff are cool to the idea.

White House spokesman Tony Snow dismissed talk of a disagreement.

Mr. TONY SNOW (Spokesman, White House): Without commenting on any specific ideas that maybe discussed, and I won't do that. I can tell you that the notion that somehow there is some sort of feud between the president and the Joint Chiefs would be wrong.

BOWMAN: Sources, familiar with the debate, say the uniformed chiefs realize the Iraq situation is far more than just a military problem. They worry that the political and economic issues in the country are not being addressed by either the Iraqi government or parts of the American government.

Privately, the chiefs complained that the Departments of State and Treasury as well as the U.S. Agency for International Development are not doing their share in Iraq. The chiefs worry that the military will be blamed for failure in Iraq.

Lieutenant General John Sattler who serves on the Joint staff briefed reporters on the situation in Iraq yesterday. He told reporters he doesn't think an ever-increasing number of forces could solve the problems that Iraq faces.

Lieutenant General JOHN SATTLER: I don't know how many forces who could push into a country either us or coalition or Iraqi forces that could cover the entire country where these death squads wouldn't find somebody. They are not after particular individuals. They are just - it's a tit-for-tat thing that's going back and forth.

BOWMAN: The two generals in the Joint Chiefs of Staff who have the most to say are those whose troops will be most affected. Retired marine officer, General James Conway, told reporters over the weekend that more American troops must be tied to a specific mission or goal.

General JAMES CONWAY: We would fully support, I think, as a Joint Chiefs, the idea of putting more troops into Iraq, if there is a solid military reason for doing so.

BOWMAN: Army Chief of Staff Peter Schoomaker told reporters last week much the same thing. It only makes sense to surge troops for a purpose. Schoomaker asked if something measurable can be achieved with more troops. Those supporting a surge in troops say there is, at least, one specific purpose - it's called Baghdad.

Senator John McCain was in the Iraqi capital last week. He says what he saw there are use for more forces.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona): I believe that there is still a compelling reason to have an increase in troops here in Baghdad and in Anbar province in order to bring the sectarian violence under control.

BOWMAN: But McCain's colleague on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Democrat Jack Reed of Rhode Island, doubts that more troops will work.

Senator JACK REED (Democrat, Rhode Island): Baghdad is a city of about 6 million people. And an increase of 35,000 troops sounds significant but what does it really mean in terms of pacifying a city of 6 million people?

BOWMAN: Baghdad will soon be the destination of Defense Secretary Robert Gates. He will be meeting with top American commanders including Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno who runs the day-to-day military operations. Sources say Odierno is more supportive of the case for a surge of troops.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, The Pentagon.

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