By BRIAN KNOWLTON
WASHINGTON, Dec. 17 — Former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said today that badly overstretched American forces in Iraq were losing the war there, and that a temporary increase in troop levels probably would not help.
But, he quickly added, “we haven’t lost.”
The situation could be reversed, General Powell said in one of his most extensive commentaries on the Iraq war since leaving office. He urged an intense effort to train and support Iraqi security forces and strengthen the government in Baghdad.
General Powell was deeply skeptical about proposals to increase troop levels in Iraq, an idea that appears to have gained ground as President Bush reconsiders the United States’ strategy there.
“There really are no additional troops” to send, General Powell said, adding that he agreed with those who say that the United States Army is “about broken.”
General Powell said he was unsure that new troops could successfully suppress sectarian violence or secure Baghdad.
He urged the United States to do everything possible to prepare Iraqis to take over lead responsibility; the “baton pass,” he said, should begin by mid-2007.
“We are losing — we haven’t lost — and this is the time, now, to start to put in place the kinds of strategies that will turn this situation around,” General Powell said on the CBS News program “Face the Nation.”
Military planners and White House budget analysts have been asked to provide Mr. Bush with options for increasing American forces in Baghdad by 20,000 or more, and there are signs that the president is leaning in that direction.
Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the incoming Democratic majority leader, said today that he would “go along with” an increase in troops in Iraq if it were clearly intended to lead to an ultimate troop withdrawal by early 2008.
Mr. Reid supported the proposal of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group to undertake a broad regional effort to gain diplomatic support for a peaceful Iraq.
General Powell endorsed a related study group idea: opening talks with Syria and Iran.
The general has kept a low public profile since leaving office in January 2005, but he has emerged at crucial points in the growing debate over Iraq to weigh in, as when he said that Iraq was now embroiled in civil war.
An increase in troop strength, he said today, “cannot be sustained.” The thousands of additional American troops sent into Baghdad since summer had been unable to stabilize the city and more probably could not tip the balance, General Powell said. The deployment of further troops would, moreover, impose long-term costs on a badly stretched military.
While Mr. Reid suggested that he would support a troop increase for only two or three months, Gen. Jack Keane, one of five Iraq experts who met with Bush last Monday, called that schedule “impossible.”
General Keane, a retired Army vice chief of staff, asserted that Iraq could not be secured before mid-2008. “It will take a couple of months just to get forces in,” he said on the ABC News program “This Week.”
The president’s request to military planners and White House budget officials to provide details of what a troop increase would mean indicates that the option is gaining ground, senior administration officials said.
Political, training and recruiting obstacles mean that an increase larger than 20,000 to 30,000 troops would be prohibitive, the officials said. The increase would probably be accomplished largely by accelerating scheduled deployments while keeping some units in Iraq longer than had been planned.
General Powell said this meant it would be “a surge that you’d have to pay for later,” as replacement troops became even harder to find.
The current strategy stresses stepping up the training of Iraqi forces and handing off to them as soon as possible.
Senator Reid made clear that his support for a troop increase depended on its being linked to an overall withdrawal plan. “We have to change course in Iraq,” he said on the ABC News program “This Week.” But in the meantime, Mr. Reid said, Democrats would “give the military anything they want.”
General Powell, who as chairman of the joint chiefs of staff helped lead an earlier American-led coalition that forced Iraqi troops out of Kuwait in 1991, said that he was unsure this time whether victory could be achieved.
“If victory means you have got rid of every insurgent, that you have peace throughout the country, I don’t see that in the cards right now,” he said. But it was possible to install a certain level of order and security.
General Powell said the Iraq war had left Americans “a little less safe” by curtailing the forces available should another major crisis arise. But, he added, “I think that’s all recoverable.”
He supported the call for talks with Syria and Iran, although the latter, he said, would be more difficult.
“I have no illusion that either Syria or Iran want to help us in Iraq,” General Powell said. But there were times, he said, when difficult contacts can be productive.
Before he visited Damascus as secretary of state, General Powell said, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel asked him not to go. But Mr. Sharon then added that it would be helpful if General Powell should ask Syrian leaders to stop Hezbollah militants in Lebanon from firing rockets into Israel.
“The rockets stopped,” General Powell said.