WASHINGTON - At a key juncture in the Iraq war, the military chiefs conveyed to President Bush yesterday their concern about a growing strain on troops and their families from long and repeated combat tours.
Bush met privately at the Pentagon with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Defense Secretary Robert Gates in preparation for decisions about how long to sustain the troop buildup in Iraq, whether to change course this fall, and how to save the health of a heavily stressed Army and Marine Corps.
Indications are that Bush intends to stick with his current approach, at least into 2008, despite persistent pressure from the Democrat-led Congress - including some prominent Republicans - to find a new course.
Bush's critics point to mounting evidence that while the troop buildup may have halted the escalation of sectarian violence in Baghdad, the Iraqis are making almost no headway toward political reconciliation.
There are no signs that the Pentagon's top generals and admirals are pushing for an early end to the war, but they are concerned not only about strains on troops but also about the possibility that the heavy focus on counterinsurgency warfare in Iraq leaves the military ill-prepared in the event of a crisis elsewhere.
Bush's new strategy, announced in January, involved sending 30,000 more troops to Iraq to calm the violence so that the Baghdad government could gain some breathing room to make political progress, which hasn't happened. Now, there are more than 160,000 troops in Iraq, the most since the war began in 2003.
Without revealing specifics of the Joint Chiefs's remarks, Bush said afterward that they discussed preserving the military's war-fighting capability for the long term and "monitoring the health of our all-volunteer force" - the latter an allusion to fears among some that war strains could break the military.
Included in the session was Lieutenant General Douglas Lute, the former operations chief for the Joint Chiefs who this summer moved to the White House to become Bush's personal adviser on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Bush did not speak in person after the meeting, but he issued a statement asking lawmakers to reserve judgment about the best next move in Iraq until they have heard from the top US general and diplomat there.
The service chiefs, who have no command responsibilities, are charged with maintaining forces ready for combat and ensuring they have enough time for proper training. In that context the chiefs of the Army and Marine Corps have expressed concern that the troop buildup in Iraq come to an early end. Of particular worry to the Army are the 15-month tours that soldiers are now serving.
Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary, said that while he was not a participant in the meeting with Bush he understood that the president sought their views on how their forces are faring, more than four years into the war.