Army plans to keep thousands of troops in Iraq through '06

A senior officer warns that maintaining force so large will tax military


WASHINGTON - Army plans for Iraq call for keeping about 100,000 U.S. troops there through March 2006, a senior Army officer said yesterday. The plans reflect the concerns of senior commanders that stabilizing Iraq could be more difficult than originally planned.

The officer, who insisted on anonymity, warned that maintaining a force of that size in Iraq beyond then would cause the Army to "really start to feel the pain" from stresses on overtaxed active-duty soldiers as well as Reserve and National Guard troops.

The officer was offering a senior-level Army view on the issue, but the size of any future American force in Iraq ultimately will be decided by President Bush and a new provisional Iraqi government that is expected to assume control from an American administrator by next June. The Army plans nevertheless give a view of top-level Pentagon thinking about the size of the American force that may be needed in Iraq well beyond the time next year when Washington expects to turn political control of Iraq back to Iraqi leaders.

Bush has said he would be guided by the military's judgment in deciding troop levels. Military officials have said they would base their recommendations largely on security conditions in Iraq and the extent Iraqis are trained to fill missions now carried out by American troops.

The Pentagon has said that it will reduce the overall American military presence in Iraq to 105,000 by May from 130,000 now. While some civilian defense officials have raised the possibility of shrinking the force even more next year, if circumstances allow, the senior Army officer said Army planners are assuming that the number of American forces in Iraq will likely stay the same when the military begins its one-year troop rotation in March 2005. That force would presumably remain in Iraq until March 2006.

"What we're looking at doing is making some assumptions with the Marines about sustaining the type of force we're going to need," said the officer, who spoke to a small group of military reporters. "As you look at this, it wouldn't seem prudent right now to plan on using a force of less than what is there now, for March `05."

White House and Defense Department officials have insisted that political considerations played no role in the Pentagon's decision to reduce the force rotating into Iraq next spring to replace troops who have been there a year. On Thursday, Bush even suggested he was open to rethinking the Pentagon's plan to cut troop levels in Iraq next year.

Many military planners are looking at future troop levels in Iraq, for different reasons. Army and Marine Corps officials must plan for worst-case scenarios, because their services will provide the vast majority of forces in the next rotation and in future rotations. Planners on the military's Joint Staff in Washington examine how forces are allocated for various hot spots around the world.

One senior officer said, for example, that planning for the force to enter Iraq in early 2005 was under way, but was focused on which units might go rather than on a specific overall number of troops.

Planners at the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla., which has responsibility for military operations in Iraq, closely watch the specific troop requirements in Iraq. For that reason, Gen. John P. Abizaid of the Army, who heads the Central Command, will likely have the most influential voice in deciding future troop levels in Iraq.

"John Abizaid is the one who's going to tell us at several points down the road over the next couple of years what he thinks he's going to need," the senior Army officer said yesterday.

Even so, the views of senior Army and Marine Corps officers involved in the planning by their services in Washington are important because those officers track and respond to what ground commanders in Iraq say they require.

Just how large the American military presence in Iraq will be in the future depends on negotiations with Iraqi political leaders, and also on the level of violence in Iraq and how quickly newly trained Iraqis can take over security of their own country, American officials say.

Teams of Army Special Forces are now training Iraqis in an accelerated program to fill out the ranks of a civil defense corps, the equivalent of a militia.

The Iraqi militiamen are already conducting joint patrols with American forces, and Abizaid has said he envisions that the militia will eventually assume a more prominent and independent role in attacking the former Baath Party loyalists, foreign fighters and other insurgents who continue to carry out ambushes and roadside bombings against American forces.

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