Troops expecting to leave Iraq won't

U.S. could beef up force by extending some tours

Conflict In Iraq

April 08, 2004|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Some U.S. troops expecting to leave Iraq in the coming weeks might see their deployments extended because of the sudden surge in violence in the country, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said yesterday.

Rumsfeld as well as Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declined to say how many soldiers might be told to remain or for how long.

"And at that point where we are able to be specific, we will certainly let them know," Rumsfeld told reporters at the Pentagon.

But the defense secretary left open the possibility that American forces in Iraq could increase from the current 134,000 troops. That number, in turn, is up from 120,000 in November.

Rumsfeld said the continuing rotation of fresh troops into Iraq will be managed "to allow those seasoned troops with experience and relationships with the local populations to see the current situation through."

"This much is certain," Rumsfeld said. "We will take robust military action as necessary."

Among those troops that could be ordered to extend their stay are soldiers from the 1st Armored Division, based in Germany, who have been patrolling Baghdad, and soldiers from the 4th Infantry Division, headquartered at Fort Hood, Texas, who took part in the capture of Saddam Hussein in December.

Both divisions have been in the country for a year and were scheduled to leave when the current rotation of troops is completed in May. The USO has planned a "Welcome Home" celebration for April 22 at Fort Hood.

No formal orders yet

Rumsfeld said that Gen. John P. Abizaid, commander of U.S. forces in the region, plans to take advantage of the jump in the number of troops from the rotation. Abizaid has yet to formally order any troops to remain longer, defense officials said.

"It is certainly possible that General Abizaid will make a judgment about the kinds of forces he will need during this period," Rumsfeld said. "And since we do have a larger number than normal, that is an advantage that we can certainly use to our benefit."

But even as they talked of extending the duty of combat-hardened soldiers in Iraq, Rumsfeld and Myers downplayed the sharp increase in attacks. They said they are being carried out by small groups of former Hussein loyalists, terrorists and "Iraqi extremists" including followers of the firebrand Shiite cleric, Muqtaba al-Sadr, who has called for Americans to pull out of Shiite cities and release prisoners.

Sadr's militia, known as the "Mahdi Army," is thought to number between 1,000 and 6,000 fighters, said Rumsfeld. They have battled U.S. and coalition forces from the slums of Baghdad to Shiite-dominated cities in the south, including Najaf, Kufah and Nasiriyah.

`Not a Shiite uprising'

Myers dismissed the suggestions of some defense analysts that the United States could be facing the possibility of widespread insurrection among the Shiites, who account for 60 percent of Iraq's 25 million population.

"It's not a Shiite uprising. Sadr has a very small following," said Myers.

But with reports that Sunni and Shiite militiamen have joined together in a Baghdad neighborhood to battle American troops, Pentagon officials are seeing the first signs of an even more ominous development: Remnants of Hussein's security services are advising the Mahdi Army on ways to thwart U.S. military power.

"It is troubling," a Pentagon official said yesterday about intelligence reports that Hussein's former Sunni military officers are working with the Mahdi Army.

The official, who requested anonymity, said he was uncertain how extensive the ties are between the two bitter political and religious rivals but noted that the U.S. military is watching the developments closely.

On Tuesday, residents of a middle-class Sunni neighborhood in Baghdad marched with al-Sadr's Shiite supporters and then opened fire on U.S. troops. At least one American soldiers was killed, officials said.

"It's something worth watching," said Steven Metz, director of research for the Strategic Studies Institute at the Army War College. "I think it would be an ominous turn of events." What is unknown, said Metz, is whether the links are part of a broad alliance, a marriage of convenience between the two rivals to drive out the American occupiers.

Mutual support

Former members of Hussein's army and security services could offer Sadr's growing forces the expertise lacking in the ill-trained Mahdi Army, officials said. At the same time, the cooperation appears to be going both ways.

The Al-Jazeera network has reported that Shiite supporters of al-Sadr fighters were among the forces fighting U.S. Marines in the Sunni Triangle city of Fallujah, where four American security contractors were murdered and dismembered during an attack last week.

The young cleric's followers also might have entered the Sunni city of Ramadi, west of Fallujah, to join in the attacks on Marines, 12 of whom were killed in fierce fighting Tuesday.

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