ABC News has learned that Pentagon officials are considering a major strategic shift in Iraq, to move U.S. forces out of the dangerous Sunni-dominated al-Anbar province and join the fight to secure Baghdad.
The news comes as President Bush prepares to meet with Iraq's prime minster to discuss the growing sectarian violence. The two will meet in Jordan, where they are expected to focus on hammering out a plan to increase the strength and numbers of Iraqi forces.
There are now 30,000 U.S. troops in al-Anbar, mainly Marines, braving some of the fiercest fighting in Iraq. At least 1,055 Americans have been killed in this region, making al-Anbar the deadliest province for American troops.
The region is a Sunni stronghold and the main base of operations for al Qaeda in Iraq and has been a place of increasing frustration to U.S. commanders.
In a recent intelligence assessment, senior Marine Intelligence Officer in al-Anbar, Col. Peter Devlin, concluded that without a massive infusement of more troops, the battle in al-Anbar is unwinnable.
In the memo, first reported by the Washington Post, Devlin writes, "Despite the success of the December elections, nearly all government institutions from the village to provincial levels have disintegrated or have been thoroughly corrupted and infiltrated by al Qaeda in Iraq."
Faced with that situation in al-Anbar, and the desperate need to control Iraq's capital, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Peter Pace is considering turning al-Anbar over to Iraqi security forces and moving U.S. troops from there into Baghdad.
"If we are not going to do a better job doing what we are doing out [in al-Anbar], what's the point of having them out there?" said a senior military official.
Another option under consideration is to increase the overall U.S. troop level in Iraq by two to five brigades (that's about 7,000 to 18,000 troops).
Generals Casey and Abizaid, however, have both weighed in against this idea. And such an increase would only be sustainable for six to eight months. Far more likely, the official says, will be a repositioning of forces currently in Iraq. "There is a push for a change of footprint, not more combat power."
As dire as the situation is, officials say they expect no decisions on any change in military strategy for at least another two or three weeks, until incoming Defense Secretary Robert Gates is sworn in and given a chance to weigh in on the various options under consideration.