Hopes dim for cutting U.S. forces in Iraq

March 04, 2006|By TOM BOWMAN | TOM BOWMAN,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- The top U.S. commander in Iraq said yesterday that he hopes to make an assessment this spring about whether to reduce the number of American troops in Iraq. But Pentagon officials speaking anonymously said a recent surge in violence there has dampened hopes that force levels can be cut anytime soon.

The expectation now is that U.S. force levels will remain the same for the foreseeable future, according to a senior military officer, speaking on condition of anonymity. Another Pentagon official said that with violence continuing in Iraq, the current number of American troops would likely be maintained at least through the end of 2006.

"They're planning for the long haul this year," the official said. "The numbers will be sustained or slightly increase to provide for trainers."

Gen. George W. Casey, who is scheduled to return to Washington for talks next week with President Bush, discussed with reporters yesterday the bloody sectarian conflict that followed the bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra last week.

"Will it affect [U.S.] troop levels? It is certainly something that we will consider in our decisions," Casey said in a teleconference from Baghdad. "I've said consistently here I'd make another assessment in the spring, and we are still on that timeline."

Currently, 133,000 U.S. troops are stationed in Iraq, a number that has remained largely unchanged for more than a year. A total of 160,000 U.S. forces were in Iraq in December, a temporary spike intended to provide security for nationwide elections.

There have been widespread expectations since last summer that a troop withdrawal would begin in earnest this year. Some in the military had expected that Casey would announce further troop cuts as early as this month, with the likelihood that no more than 100,000 U.S. troops would remain in Iraq by the end of this year.

Casey and other officials have said only that U.S. troop strength would be determined by a variety of factors, including political progress in Iraq, the training and strengthening of Iraqi security forces and a reduction in the overall level of violence.

At the same time, there has been a rising drumbeat in Congress to cut U.S. forces, led by Rep. John P. Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat and Marine veteran of the Vietnam War, who has advocated pulling all troops out of Iraq within six months.

About 2,000 soldiers from a brigade of the 1st Infantry Division are expected to head to Iraq this spring or summer as trainers for the Iraqi security forces. That deployment could slightly boost the total number of U.S. forces.

Andrew Krepinevich, a retired Army officer and defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said that now is not a good time to contemplate force reductions in Iraq:

"My sense is you don't want to make the announcement with the country in a flux. In a month or so, Casey would be comfortable in lowering troop levels."

Krepinevich said that if the Bush administration decides not to reduce the size of the American force, it would put more strain on the Army. "It's a question of how much you can stretch an institution," he said.

Complicating matters is the long lead time needed to deploy U.S.-based forces to Iraq. Troops need about two months of training, including time for practice at mock Iraqi villages at the Army's Fort Irwin in the California desert. Four to six more weeks are needed to ship equipment by sea to the Persian Gulf, officials said.

Officials said Casey would have to decide soon - perhaps no later than this month - whether to stop additional units from deploying to Iraq this summer. Among those units are elements of the 82nd Airborne from Fort Bragg, N.C., and the 25th Infantry Division from Hawaii, plus the 34th Infantry Division, a National Guard unit from Minnesota.

Casey said that sectarian violence unleashed last week by the bombing in the 1,200-year-old Askariya shrine, one of Shiite Islam's holiest sites, led to the deaths of about 350 civilians. He said that Iraqi security forces generally performed well and that "it appears the crisis has passed."

Casey said Iraq is working its way through "sectarian tensions" and Iraqi leaders must find a way to disband militias that are aligned with particular religious groups and absorb them into the government security forces.

The majority Shiites account for about 60 percent of the country's population, while the once-ruling Sunni minority makes up about 15 percent.

Much of the recent violence was centered on Sunni mosques, and Casey said the U.S. military could confirm 30 attacks on mosques around the country.

Asked whether the Iraqi Army, which is largely Sunni, could splinter in the event that sectarian clashes dissolve into civil war, Casey said he was "not overly concerned" about that.

There are about 227,000 Iraqi soldiers, police and border guards that have been trained and equipped, the Pentagon said in a report to Congress last month. Those figures represent an 18 percent increase from October, when the last report was filed.

Officials said that while they are generally pleased with the progress of the Iraqi Army units, which include about 107,000 soldiers, the same cannot be said for the police force - numbering about 82,000 - which is rife with corruption and has repeatedly been accused of atrocities.

"We are working with the Iraqi security forces to continue to prepare them to assume the lead in counter-insurgency operations," Casey said. "And I think we'll continue that role here over the course of the next year as we move the process forward."

tom.bowman@baltsun.com

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