Pentagon moves to increase military's presence in Iraq

Rumsfeld delays homecoming of 4,000 troops in effort to bolster security

July 28, 2006|By DAVID WOOD | DAVID WOOD,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- With U.S. forces struggling to reinforce violence-racked Baghdad and keep the lid on the insurgency across Iraq, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld took the unusual step yesterday of extending the 12-month tour of 4,000 seasoned combat troops, even as fresh combat troops are pouring into the country.

U.S. troop levels in Iraq will surge temporarily over the coming weeks by more than 10,000 soldiers as three huge combat brigades flood into Iraq in planned deployments to begin their 12-month tours. For much of August, these brigades will overlap with units ready to rotate back home, Pentagon officials said yesterday. The overlap of units coming and going, the officials said, could be slightly lengthened depending on conditions in Iraq.

At least 400 additional American support soldiers are also being sent to Iraq from bases in Kuwait to replace combat troops being directed into Baghdad. These troops are engineers and signals specialists who do not normally undertake combat missions such as guarding convoys and manning checkpoints.

Together, these moves will raise the U.S. military presence in Iraq to more than 137,000, appearing to dash hopes that a significant number of American troops could be brought home this fall. Instead, the rising numbers of troops, coming two days after President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki agreed on emergency measures to try to quell a rising tide of sectarian killings in Baghdad, seemed to signal that the war in Iraq will require a major U.S. military commitment for the foreseeable future, a requirement that is severely straining the armed forces.

"We are in a long war, and you don't have anybody sitting on the bench," John Medve, deputy chief of war plans for the Army, said in an interview yesterday. "Everybody's going."

Rumsfeld's aides had described him yesterday as extremely reluctant to delay the return home of the 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, an armored unit based at Fort Wainwright, Alaska. Such last-minute changes are considered devastating to the morale of soldiers and their families, and can be a major factor in the decision on whether soldiers will re-enlist.

The extension, which was urged by Gen. George W. Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, will keep the brigade's 4,000 soldiers in Iraq for up to three more months. About 700 of the unit's troops had already returned home amid preparations by the families for a jubilant return ceremony for the rest of the brigade

In a statement, the Pentagon said late yesterday that it "recognizes the continued contributions of the 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team and their family members." The extension, the statement said, "reflects the continued commitment of the United States to the security of the Iraqi people."

Defense officials said the Stryker Brigade will be deployed in Baghdad, where its light armored vehicles will give its soldiers a high degree of mobility and firepower for street patrols.

In addition, at least four military police companies are being redeployed into Baghdad from outlying districts to work with Iraqi police units, Army officials said. Military police companies typically contain 110 to 120 soldiers.

In Baghdad yesterday, 32 people were killed and 153 wounded when mortar shells exploded in a mostly Shiite neighborhood and insurgents detonated two car bombs, one at a restaurant frequented by Iraqi police, wire services reported. The United Nations reported earlier this month that Iraqi civilians are being killed in such violence at the rate of about 100 per week across the country.

The sharp spike in sectarian violence in Baghdad, in attacks largely spearheaded by Shiite and Sunni militias, apparently took the U.S. military command by surprise. Military planners raced this week to flesh out the announcement by Bush and al-Maliki on Tuesday for a huge redeployment of U.S. and Iraqi security forces into Baghdad.

This unexpected duty is putting serious strain on the Army's ability to transform combat-worn units back into fresh, retrained and refit brigades ready to deploy back into combat, because shortages of soldiers and equipment mean the units are able to fully train for only 45 days of the 14 months they have between deployments.

For most of that time between deployments, Army officials said, brigades lack as much as a quarter of their allotted personnel and are missing major pieces of equipment. There are shortages of manpower even though the Army has roughly 7,000 active-duty soldiers on stop-loss status, meaning they have fulfilled their obligation but have been prevented from leaving active duty.

The shortages of soldiers and equipment mean as much as 70 percent of active-duty combat units based in the United States are waiting for soldiers and equipment and thus are rated "not ready to deploy," even though they comprise what is supposed to be the nation's strategic reserve in case of a major new conflict.

Gen. Peter Schoomaker, Army chief of staff, has said the Army needs $17 billion this fall to begin filling these equipment shortages and $13 billion a year as long as the war in Iraq lasts.

"This is a disaster," said Rep. John P. Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat who was a Marine combat commander in Vietnam. "We don't have a strategic reserve - if something happens someplace, we can't deploy them."

david.wood@baltsun.com

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