U.S. mulls more troops in Iraq for election
The Pentagon is considering increasing the U.S. force in Iraq for the January elections by delaying the departure of some troops and speeding the arrival of others, U.S. officials said on Tuesday.
News of discussions over increasing the troop strength emerged a week before the U.S. presidential election, with President Bush under pressure from his Democratic challenger over the financial and human cost of the Iraq war.
Possibilities include delaying the upcoming departure of the Army's 1st Infantry Division or 1st Cavalry Division from Iraq, and accelerating the deployment of elements of the 3rd Infantry Division from Fort Stewart in Georgia, perhaps a 5,000-strong brigade, officials said.
The Pentagon also could deploy soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division, based at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. It sent 1,100 82nd Airborne soldiers to Afghanistan in September to boost security for the presidential election there. Polling took place in Afghanistan on Oct. 9 with little violence.
Gen. John Abizaid, who as head of Central Command is the top U.S. commander in the region, has said more troops will be needed to safeguard the election but that would be achieved primarily through more U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces.
The Pentagon has acknowledged broad problems in training and equipping Iraqi security forces, but Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said this month roughly 50,000 more would be on the job before the elections.
The officials said it was not decided what number of U.S. troops would be on the ground for the elections.
But they noted the Pentagon raised the U.S. presence in Iraq by about 20,000 troops this spring by delaying the scheduled departure of some troops by three months and hastening the arrival of others.
"I think they're definitely going to extend some guys," said an Army official, speaking on condition of anonymity. The official added he did not expect any announcement until sometime after the U.S. election.
"The bottom line is: will soldiers be disappointed? The answer is yes. When asked to do the mission, will they do it? The answer is yes," the Army official added.
Bush's Democratic challenger Sen. John Kerry, noting pressures on the existing all-volunteer U.S. forces by the hostilities in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, has even suggested that Bush could be forced to seek a draft if troop shortages grow. Bush has denied he would impose a draft.
The Pentagon has told Army soldiers they will serve yearlong stints in Iraq. A senior defense official, who asked not to be named, said the departure delay being considered may not last more than a period of weeks.
Additional troops could be used in conjunction with the fledgling Iraqi security forces to help guard the numerous polling places scattered around the country and protect election workers.
The 1,100 82nd Airborne soldiers remain in Afghanistan, but are due back home in about a week, said Maj. Amy Hannah, a spokeswoman for the division at Fort Bragg. The division has not received orders to send soldiers for a similar mission to Iraq, but would be able to do so with just 18 hours notice, Hannah said.
"No decision has been made yet regarding force strength for the upcoming elections," said Air Force 1st Lt. Catherine Wallace, a Central Command spokeswoman. "They are going to look at the best way to create a secure environment for the scheduled elections and adapt accordingly."