WASHINGTON - Struggling to quell the combined insurgencies of both Sunnis and Shiites, the Pentagon plans to keep thousands of U.S. Army troops in Iraq for up to 90 days beyond their scheduled departure date, officials said yesterday.
The decision to prolong the soldiers' tour comes as President Bush and other administration officials are moving on several fronts to shore up the existing coalition of troop-contributing countries and to persuade new countries to join.
The 30-nation coalition has been rocked by uprisings of Sunni militants west of the capital, Baghdad, and Shiites in Baghdad and several cities in central and southern Iraq.
There are signs that members of the two historically competitive branches of Islam have joined forces in a bid to end the U.S.-led occupation.
American military leaders have said for several days that they were considering ways to boost American troop strength to combat the insurgency, including prolonging tours of soldiers due to leave Iraq as part of a major troop rotation now under way.
Yesterday, one year after the fall of Baghdad, Pentagon officials said they expected to begin notifying the families of up to 10,000 soldiers belonging to the Army's 1st Armored Division, normally based in Germany, that they would remain in Iraq for no more than 90 days.
These troops, representing half the division, had originally been scheduled to leave Iraq by May.
The extended tour could keep them in Iraq beyond the scheduled handover of political power from the U.S. occupation authority set for June 30.
The rising death toll from the insurgency has heightened domestic political pressure on other nations in the coalition. Although the United States has supplied the vast majority of troops, with Britain the second-biggest contributor, other nations have helped to secure key parts of southern Iraq or sent troops for noncombat activities.
Both Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw acknowledged in broadcast interviews yesterday that the United States and its allies were confronting hard problems this week, but they said the coalition would weather them.
"It's been a tough week, let's be clear about that," Powell said. "I didn't think it would be this intense, but nevertheless I think it is controllable and manageable, and we have the forces to deal with it."
He said the June 30 transition date remains "achievable."
Straw told the BBC that "the current situation is the most difficult we have faced" since the end of major combat last May 1.
Fighting this week prompted Ukraine to pull its troops out of the southern Iraqi city of Kut, and Bulgaria and Kazakstan are seeking additional protection for their forces.
Spain's newly elected Socialist prime minister has threatened to pull his country's troops from Iraq unless there is an explicit new United Nations mandate.
4 leaders confer
Amid growing unease within the coalition, Bush spoke from his Texas ranch yesterday with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski and Salvadoran President Francisco Flores.
"The four leaders reaffirmed their commitment to a free and democratic Iraq and defeating the minority extremist elements seeking to derail the transition process through violence," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.
Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair will meet here Friday for what is shaping up as a strategy session on Iraq.
The White House also praised the "resolute stand" of Japanese Prime Minister Yonichuro Koizumi, who has rejected calls to pull noncombat forces out of Iraq after the kidnapping of three Japanese civilians.
Powell spoke yesterday with Japan's foreign minister.
Bush has vowed to stay the course in Iraq despite evidence of growing Iraqi hostility to the occupation, but officials are struggling to broaden international participation.
A senior State Department official said yesterday that about a dozen countries that are not now members of the coalition, including France, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, had been approached about sending troops to help stabilize Iraq after June 30, when the occupation officially is supposed to end.
Some nations have said they would reconsider their earlier refusals to send troops if a sovereign Iraqi government, instead of the United States, made the request.
U.S. officials hope other countries can be persuaded to send forces to protect a U.N. mission that is supposed guide Iraq toward national elections.
But so far, no other countries have pledged troops, and many aspects of the June 30 handover remain clouded by uncertainty.
Diplomats say the new Iraqi government will likely be an expanded, or perhaps doubled, version of the 25-member Iraqi Governing Council, all of whose current members were hand-picked by the United States.
How it will be chosen and whether such a body will be viewed by Iraqis and the rest of the world as a legitimate sovereign body is unclear.
Council member resigns