Senator calls for more troops in Iraq

Murray presses Rumsfeld for help at supply base

The Nation

October 15, 2004|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - A member of the Senate Armed Services Committee is pressing Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld for more troops to protect the largest U.S. supply base in Iraq - dubbed "Mortaritaville" because of the frequency of mortar and rocket attacks - after the base commander's requests for more troops were rejected.

Sen. Patty Murray, a Democrat who represents Washington state, the home of the Army National Guard unit serving at the embattled base, said in a letter to Rumsfeld that she has "great concern" about the safety of the troops and added that Rumsfeld and President Bush have repeatedly said they would honor military commanders' requests for more troops.

Brig. Gen. Oscar B. Hilman - the commander of the 81st Brigade Combat Team based in Tacoma, Wash. - told The Sun two weeks ago that he requested an additional battalion, about 500 to 700 soldiers, to help secure the perimeter of the base, officially known as Logistics Support Area Anaconda and located about 50 miles northwest of Baghdad.

Since April, soldiers and contractors have suffered about 100 casualties, including at least six killed. The base has been averaging 58 attacks per month since July.

"Because the enemy is persistent, we need additional forces. We asked twice," said Hilman, whose unit includes about 4,500 troops, some from units in California and Minnesota.

In her letter Wednesday, Murray cited a recent Pentagon news release, quoting Rumsfeld as saying, "The commanders on the ground make a continuing assessment as to the number of troops they believe they need and the kinds of troops they need. ... You can be certain that if they want more troops, we will sign deployment orders so that they'll have the troops they need." Murray added in her letter, "The position asserted by you and other administration officials appears to be in conflict with the reality on the ground."

Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, said that Rumsfeld's staff is reviewing the senator's letter. Whitman reiterated the Defense Department's position that commanders on the ground are the best judges of how many troops are needed, and where, to accomplish an assigned mission.

Officials said Hilman's request was endorsed by his higher command, the 13th Corps Support Command and its top officer, Brig. Gen. James E. Chambers, but rejected by U.S. officers in Baghdad. Hilman said he was told that "there are no additional forces," and that soldiers were needed elsewhere.

In an interview yesterday, Murray said she has talked with senior National Guard officials in Washington state, whom she declined to name, and said they have echoed Hilman's concerns. "This is just extremely disturbing, and we've got to get to the bottom of it," she said.

Officers at Anaconda - a 15-square-mile base that is home to 22,500 soldiers and 2,500 contractors - said that while the 81st provides security inside the fence that surrounds the base, protection outside the concertina wire falls to the 2nd Brigade, part of the 1st Infantry Division, based in Tikrit. Those units, too, are stretched thin, officials said.

Asked why the requests from Hilman and Chambers were rejected, Sharon Walker, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Baghdad, issued a statement: "Force protection is a top consideration in all planning and I can assure you that LSA Anaconda is employing all available means to defend and prevent attacks. No defense can prevent all attacks and in fact the number of indirect fire attacks here has decreased. Air and ground forces from the LSA and surrounding area respond aggressively to all attacks."

Soldiers and officers at Anaconda apparently continue to worry about attacks and are hopeful the interest in their plight will lead to additional forces. "I hope that we can use it to get more troops up there," said one Iraq-based Army officer familiar with the situation at Anaconda, who requested anonymity in an e-mail message.

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