U.S. Mideast commander seeks more troops in Iraq

Formal request is made to Pentagon for 7,000 to 10,000, `if not more'

April 13, 2004|By John Hendren | John Hendren,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - As his troops regrouped after the deadliest week since the fall of Baghdad, Iraq, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq acknowledged yesterday what many critics have been saying for months: The American-led force needs more troops.

An expected deployment of thousands more troops for duty in Iraq answers congressional calls for backup and comes as administration officials work to prevent allies from following Spain's planned withdrawal of its forces.

But the request yesterday also revealed the Pentagon's lack of options for finding reinforcements. Army Gen. John Abizaid, head of the Central Command, called Iraqi security forces a "great disappointment." As a result, most of the new troops are almost certain to come from the thinly stretched U.S. Army.

The request for more soldiers is likely to bolster critics who have accused the president's team of underestimating the amount of American blood and money needed to successfully occupy Iraq.

Abizaid asked the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the equivalent of two brigades, or 7,000 to 10,000 troops - "if not more." The request came less than a week after military officials began extending the one-year tours of an unspecified number of the roughly 20,000 troops who were preparing to leave Iraq.

U.S. officials had hoped to draw down the troop number to 110,000 this spring as the coalition prepares to hand over authority to a still-unnamed interim Iraqi government on June 30. Instead, the Pentagon now is planning to have as many as 140,000 American troops in Iraq if the new units arrive soon, or 120,000 if the soldiers now pulling extended duties are allowed to leave in a few months, defense officials said.

And that number could change drastically, Pentagon officials said privately. Either the Joint Chiefs of Staff or Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld could substantially alter Abizaid's request. "You could see that number halve - or even double," one official said.

Abizaid has a reputation within the Pentagon as a straight-shooter, but some observers were betting on further increases.

Securing the major roadways has become a high priority, U.S. officers said. Over the weekend, U.S. forces fought pitched battles to clear the main north-south and east-west routes to and from Baghdad, and also near Fallujah, for trucks to haul food, fuel, water and ammunition to soldiers and Marines, they said.

"We've had to take extraordinary steps to get stuff to them, fighting to open up some of the routes," Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, deputy director of military operations, said in a telephone interview from Baghdad.

Some units will be kept in Iraq to help stabilize areas racked by the recent violence. Elements of the 1st Armored Division have been moved from Baghdad to Kut in the south to help quell the Mahdi Army belonging to Sheik Moqtada al-Sadr and other Shiite Muslim militias, he said.

Abizaid pledged yesterday that al-Sadr would be captured or killed by U.S. forces. "That's our mission," he said.

The fighting has killed an estimated 70 coalition troops and 700 insurgents and an undetermined number of Iraqi civilians since April 1, U.S. officials said. Sixty-four U.S. soldiers have been killed since April 4, they said, bringing to 664 the number of American troops who have died since the invasion of Iraq in March last year.

The Associated Press said it had counted about 880 Iraqi deaths. News reports quoted doctors in Fallujah saying most of the 600 reported dead there were civilians.

Three more U.S. Marines from the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force were killed Sunday "as a result of enemy action" in western Iraq near the borders with Syria and Jordan, the Pentagon said yesterday in a statement, providing no further details. It also said a soldier from the 1st Armored Division was killed in Samarra on Sunday.

Abizaid, who spoke to reporters via a video linkup from Baghdad, also expressed "great disappointment" in the performance of newly trained Iraqi forces in the face of the recent violence - many have abandoned their posts - and vowed to redouble efforts to establish a reliable security force.

Much of the fighting appeared to have subsided. Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, the ground commander in Iraq, told reporters that some areas that were under the control of al-Sadr were in U.S. control, although he said the Shia holy city of Najaf and parts of Karbala were controlled by al-Sadr's militia.

The New York Times and The Boston Globe contributed to this article.

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