Senator John McCain said Thursday that American military commanders were discussing the possibility of adding as many as 10 more combat brigades — a maximum of about 35,000 troops — to “bring the situation under control” while Iraq’s divided political leaders seek solutions to the worsening bloodshed here.
After talks in Baghdad with Gen. George W. Casey Jr. and other top American generals, Mr. McCain, an Arizona Republican, said a substantial United States troop increase was one of the strategy changes the generals were considering as they reviewed what he called “a steadily deteriorating situation.”
He said meetings with Iraqi government leaders showed that they, too, “have certainly not ruled out the option of more troops.”
“Five to 10 additional brigades is what is being discussed,” Mr. McCain said, outlining an increase that could bring overall American troop strength to the highest levels since the invasion in March 2003. While American combat brigades vary, Pentagon officials say they average about 3,500 soldiers. At present, there are 15 combat brigades in Iraq, amounting to about 50,000 of the total American force of about 140,000.
“The American people are disappointed and frustrated with the Iraq war, but they want us to succeed if there is any way to do that,” Mr. McCain told a news conference. Unlike some American military commanders who have said any troop increase should be temporary, he said any increase should last “until we can get the situation under control, or until it becomes clear that we can’t.”
Mr. McCain spoke as the leader of a Congressional delegation that included five senators who have been strong backers of the war, among them Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, who won re-election in Connecticut last month as an independent after losing the Democratic nomination to an antiwar challenger. Mr. Lieberman, too, spoke strongly in favor of a substantial troop increase, saying, “A failed state in Iraq will be a disaster for the region and the world.”
Two other Republican senators in the group, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John Thune of South Dakota, said they also backed troop increases, but Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, said she had yet to make up her mind. “I for one am not yet convinced that additional troops will pave the way for a peaceful Iraq,” she said. “My fear is that if we have more troops sent to Iraq, we will just see more injuries and more deaths.”
The trip amounted to a high-stakes campaign appearance by Mr. McCain, who is all but building his presidential campaign on the issue of Iraq. A leading contender for the Republican nomination in 2008, Mr. McCain strongly supported the original invasion but has shifted to criticizing the war’s execution. He now holds the politically risky position that the Bush administration should send in more troops, or withdraw entirely.
But Mr. McCain said personal ambition would not guide his Iraq policy.
“I take the position I’m taking with the full knowledge that only 15 to 18 percent of the American people agree with my position that we need more troops,” he said. Still, he said he supported the troop increase to stabilize the situation in Baghdad and other turbulent areas and give Iraqi leaders time to work out compromises to bring the Sunni insurgency and Sunni-Shiite sectarian violence under control.
The visit by Mr. McCain came at a time of disarray in Washington and across the United States over how to proceed in Iraq. Mr. McCain, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is effectively doubling down his bet on the war, figuring that embracing a strong resolution in Iraq will give him an effective campaign cudgel. If the administration sends more troops, Mr. McCain can hope for a speedy resolution in Iraq that allows him to claim partial victory; if President Bush pulls back and chaos persists, he could contend that his advice was ignored.
Without a troop increase, Mr. McCain said at the news conference, “the results are going to be inevitable, in my view” — a defeat for America and for its Iraqi allies that would create a terrorist haven that could be used as a base for attacks in the United States.
He contrasted the situation with the Vietnam War, saying, “when we came home, the war was over.” But now, he said, Iraq’s Islamic militants “will follow us home” if the American effort fails.
Even Mr. McCain, a decorated Vietnam hero, acknowledged the perils of his approach. He described a troop increase as “the least bad option” and said it could cost him his shot at the presidency. “I happen to feel that I have to do what my many years of life involved in the military dictate to me,” he said. As if to emphasize his military credentials, he and other members of the delegation left Baghdad by helicopter after the news conference to fly to an embattled Marine base at Ramadi, 85 miles west of the capital, which is considered one of Iraq’s deadliest places.
Although Mr. McCain did not say so, American commanders here are divided on the recommendations they will present to Mr. Bush, who has said he will announce a new strategy for the war in early January, officials familiar with the generals’ discussions say.
General Casey, the top commander here, is said to be cautious, arguing that an increase could lower violence in Baghdad, at least temporarily, but that it could also encourage Iraq’s feuding political leaders to delay tough decisions needed to stem the slide toward anarchy.
Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, the second-highest-ranking American officer in Iraq, has been the allied forces’ operational commander for the past year, and he has resisted a troop increase, the officials say, believing an American-financed job creation program could do as much to weaken the insurgents and political militias.
General Chiarelli’s successor, Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, who took over at a ceremony in Baghdad on Thursday, is bullish, seeing a troop increase as a way for American and Iraqi troops to gain the upper hand in Baghdad and Anbar Province, a desert region virtually overrun by Sunni insurgents, the officials say.
Another cautionary voice has been that of Gen. John P. Abizaid, leader of the Central Command, which oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. General Abizaid has said increasing troop strength, especially in Baghdad, could have an impact on the mounting cycle of revenge in which Sunni suicide bombings of Shiite civilian targets have set off murderous attacks on Sunni civilians by Shiite death squads. But General Abizaid, like General Casey, has said the impact would be temporary if Iraqi politicians failed to end sectarian feuding.
Iraq’s growing anarchy was highlighted Thursday by another mass kidnapping in central Baghdad that appeared to have been driven by sectarian motives. Masked gunmen in elite police uniforms abducted dozens of men in the morning from the Sinak neighborhood, an area of automobile spare-parts shops close to the Shiite working-class district of Sadr City, an Interior Ministry official and witnesses said.
The neighborhood is not far from the site of a suicide bombing on Tuesday in which at least 70 Shiite day laborers were killed and more than 230 wounded.
The gunmen drove up in cars with police markings and brandished automatic rifles, witnesses said. “People were in a panic,” said a 36-year-old spare-parts merchant. “Some people were trying to close their shops and leave. Others were just trying to slip away. I walked away as fast as I could. A few seconds later, I heard heavy shooting.”
Another merchant said he broke free from the gunmen before they could shove him into a car. “They seemed to know who they wanted to kidnap because they’d take one person and leave others behind,” he said.
The men were blindfolded and driven off to a building in an unknown location, a Shiite man who was later freed said. He said the captives were shackled and kept in a poorly lighted room. The kidnappers asked the victims whether they were Sunni or Shiite, and whether they had ties to any terrorist groups.
By late Thursday, at least 25 abductees had been freed, all Shiites, the Interior Ministry official said. It was unclear how many others — presumably Sunnis, though that was impossible to determine — were still being held.
In the area of the predominantly Shiite city of Kut in southern Iraq, 17 bodies were found by a stream, police officials said. All the victims had been shot dead after being tortured.
In Baghdad, a car bomb exploded near an Iraqi Army patrol, killing two people, including one soldier and mortar rounds killed a woman, according to Interior Ministry reports.
Edward Wong contributed reporting from Baghdad, and Anne E. Kornblut from Washington.