Pentagon to keep 135,000 troops in Iraq
Iraq probably will continue to be unstable and violent for more than a year, U.S. commanders said Tuesday in announcing plans to keep the current level of 135,000 American troops there through the end of next year.
The decision acknowledges Iraq is much more dangerous than generals had hoped earlier this year, when they planned to cut the number of occupying troops to about 115,000.
Since then, violence by Sunni and Shiite Muslim extremists has surged, making April the deadliest month for American troops since the March 2003 invasion. Several U.S. allies also have decided to pull their forces out, most notably Spain, which had about 2,300 troops in one of the most volatile areas of south-central Iraq.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on Tuesday ordered about 10,000 active-duty Army soldiers and Marines to prepare to ship out to Iraq in the next few months.
They will help replace 20,000 soldiers in the Army's 1st Armored Division and 2nd Armored Calvary Regiment who were being kept in Iraq for as long as three months past their one-year tours of duty.
Another 10,000 active-duty troops will be called up to fill out the replacement forces, Rumsfeld said.
Keeping such high troop levels in Iraq will further strain a military already stretched thin. All or part of nine of the Army's ten divisions are in Iraq or Afghanistan. Some analysts and retired generals say the Pentagon has to either expand the military or reduce its worldwide commitments.
"I think we can handle the tempo," said Air Force Lt. Gen. Norton Schwartz, the director of operations for the Pentagon's Joint Staff. "It is demanding, no question about it. But I haven't come to the conclusion that we need to grow the force yet."
The troops coming into Iraq will be more heavily armed than the forces they replace, with more tanks, armored personnel carriers and armored Humvees, said Schwartz and Army Lt. Gen. Richard Cody.
"The mission remains essentially the same. It's security and stability," Schwartz told reporters at the Pentagon.
Many of the troops being sent to Iraq have served there or in Afghanistan before. They will return to a country where ambushes and roadside bombs are more common and the political situation is unstable, with the United States set to hand limited power to a yet-unnamed Iraqi caretaker government on July 1.
The active-duty units ordered to Iraq Tuesday include the 2nd Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division, based at Fort Drum, N.Y. The Marine units are the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit from Camp Pendleton, Calif., and the 24th MEU from Camp Lejeune, N.C.
The 10th Mountain Division has units in both Iraq and Afghanistan. About 25,000 Marines already are in Iraq, many of them in and around the volatile city of Fallujah.
Rumsfeld also approved sending 37,000 support troops to Iraq on Tuesday as part of the scheduled rotation of forces. Most of those troops are in National Guard and Army Reserve units.
A U.S.-based Army airborne brigade will be ready starting Friday to handle any emergency, Cody said.
Cody said commanders have decided which units they want to use for the main force in Iraq during the next year, but all of the active-duty units have not yet been notified.
Three enhanced separate brigades from the National Guard already are preparing to go to Iraq: The 256th from Louisiana, the 116th from Idaho and the 278th from Tennessee.
Keeping 20,000 more troops in Iraq will require more money, Schwartz said. Pentagon officials say they have not decided whether to ask Congress for additional money before the fiscal year ends Sept. 30.