WASHINGTON - About 21,000 combat-hardened Army troops stationed in Iraq for the past year will remain there for three to four more months to fight the insurgency, the Pentagon is expected to announce this week, defense officials said yesterday.
Most of the soldiers will come from the 1st Armored Division, based in Germany; about 3,000 others are assigned to the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, based at Fort Polk, La.
As a result, the number of U.S. troops in Iraq will remain at about 134,000 through the summer, rather than decline as scheduled to 110,000 next month.
Gen. John P. Abizaid, the commander of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf region, said this week that he had asked the Pentagon for "two brigades' worth of combat power, if not more." Though the general declined to specify the number of soldiers needed or the unit, he acknowledged that 1st Armored Division soldiers were being sent from the Baghdad area to the southern city of al Kut to quell uprisings among a Shiite militia.
"It's logical to assume that there will be a delay in the arrival of some of those forces to home," Abizaid said. "As far as what comes next and how long, I don't want to get into that."
Two brigades would be about 10,000 soldiers. But officials said an aviation brigade from the 1st Armored Division and additional support troops already in Iraq would raise that number closer to 18,000. The division's third maneuver brigade has returned to Germany, officials said.
Besides the 1st Armored Division, most of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment is also being ordered to remain past its yearlong deployment for up to four months, officials said. About 700 soldiers from the regiment have returned to Louisiana. Flights back to the United States are on hold for the remaining 3,000 soldiers.
A brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division had been expected to stay but has been taken off the list, officials said. The brigade will now return to the United States as planned.
Commanders of the 1st Armored and the 2nd Armored Cavalry have told their soldiers that they will remain in Iraq to battle the forces of the anti-coalition Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The militia, known as the Mahdi Army, with an estimated strength of 3,000 to 6,000 fighters, has been attacking U.S.-led forces from the slums of Baghdad to Shiite-dominated cities in southern Iraq.
"We are being called on to finish the fight against Mahdi's Army south of Baghdad," Maj. Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, commander of the 1st Armored, said in an April 8 letter to his soldiers. "This will require us to remain in Iraq 90 days beyond our scheduled transfer of authority and, by the time we redeploy, away from our loved ones for another 120 days."
Col. Bradley W. May, commander of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, had similar words for his troops.
A welcome-home ceremony for 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment soldiers, scheduled for June 19, has been postponed until all those in Iraq return, Fort Polk officials said. Army officials also said that the 1st Armored Division was canceling a welcome-home celebration next month in Germany.
In his news conference Tuesday night, President Bush said he would supply the U.S. military with however many more troops are requested by Abizaid. But Pentagon officials said there are no immediate plans to dispatch fresh troops.
Should the security situation continue to deteriorate, officials said that options for additional troops could include accelerating the deployment of the 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division, Stryker Brigade Combat Team from Fort Lewis, Wash., whose estimated 3,600 soldiers are expected to rotate into Iraq later this year, or sending members of the 3rd Marine Division, which has 15,000 to 20,000 Marines on Okinawa, Japan.
Killed in Iraq
As of yesterday, 686 U.S. service members have died since the beginning of military operations. Since May 1, when President Bush declared that major combat operations in Iraq had ended, 548 U.S. soldiers have died.
Marine Pvt. Noah L. Boye, 21, Grand Island, Neb.; died Tuesday from hostile fire in Anbar province; assigned to the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, I Marine Expeditionary Force; Camp Pendleton, Calif.
Marine Lance Cpl. Robert P. Zurheide Jr., 20, Tucson, Ariz.; died Monday from hostile fire in Anbar province; assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, I Marine Expeditionary Force; Camp Pendleton, Calif.