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U.S. Hopes of Cutting Iraq Troop Levels Dim

The Pentagon extends the tours of 3,500 soldiers to help bolster security in Baghdad.

July 28, 2006|Peter Spiegel and Julian E. Barnes | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — President Bush's decision to increase the number of U.S. troops in violence-racked Baghdad has forced commanders to extend the tours of 3,500 soldiers and appears to eliminate prospects for significant withdrawals of American forces this year.

Just a month ago, the top commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., came to Washington and presented Bush with a scenario in which the number of combat brigades in Iraq could be reduced from 14 to 12 by September, with two more brigades scheduled for removal by year's end. A brigade typically comprises 3,500 soldiers.

Now, even defense officials who talked of reductions are discounting the prospects of near-term cuts.

"Something has to give," said one defense official, speaking anonymously because of the sensitivity of deployment plans. "Either we keep everyone in place or the security plan is not happening."

Shelving withdrawal plans could have political repercussions. Republican candidates facing antiwar sentiment had been hoping to be able to point to troops coming home in significant numbers before the November elections.

The security plan, which Bush outlined Tuesday, calls for boosting the U.S. troop level in Baghdad to more than 13,000 from 9,000.

The plan's ripple effect became evident Thursday. The Pentagon said the 172nd Stryker Brigade, based in Alaska, would stay in Iraq for up to four more months. The brigade had been scheduled to return home within weeks.

The 172nd is expected to be sent to Baghdad from its base in the northern city of Mosul, an Army official said.

Defense officials fear that if they were to build up the number of troops in Baghdad while drawing down troop levels in the rest of the country, cities such as Mosul and Kirkuk, which could quickly flare into major trouble spots, would be left vulnerable.

In addition to the extended tour for the 172nd Brigade, there have been other indications that the Pentagon has shelved plans to reduce troop levels below the current 128,000.

Most tellingly, a Germany-based Army brigade, whose deployment to Iraq was suspended in May, was ordered two weeks ago to resume preparations. Another brigade that was sent to Kuwait as a backup force has been almost completely moved into Iraq.

On Thursday, when Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld approved Casey's request to extend the 172nd brigade's stay in Iraq, members of the unit already were preparing to leave.

Last week, the brigade had sent a 170-soldier advance team back to Ft. Wainwright, Alaska, to prepare for the unit's return. The first 200 members of the brigade's 3,800-soldier main force flew back to Alaska on Tuesday, Army Maj. Kirk Gohlke, the unit's spokesman, said.

Gohlke said the 172nd's commander, Col. Michael Shields, held a 90-minute videoconference Wednesday night with families in Alaska to inform them of the plan to extend the tour.

Shields emphasized that the unit had been personally selected by Rumsfeld for the mission, a sign of how important it was, Gohlke said. But he acknowledged that families were disappointed.

"The families and the soldiers are human," he said. "They reacted the way anyone would react."

Rumsfeld addressed the effect of the altered plans Thursday at the Pentagon.

"If you extend somebody, is there some disappointment that they wouldn't be home when they thought they might be home? Sure," Rumsfeld said. "But, as I say, these are professional military, and they're doing a superb job."

The decision to increase the U.S. presence in Baghdad comes at the same time as a major operation in western Iraq, already underway for a month, to take back the Sunni stronghold of Ramadi from insurgents.

It also comes at a time when the U.S. military generally is seen by many lawmakers and experts as overstretched. In recent days, the Bush administration has said it will not contribute troops to any international peacekeeping force for Lebanon.

U.S. military officials in Baghdad have said they hope to show concrete results in Ramadi by August, which could allow Iraqi forces to take over more responsibilities in the city. But U.S. troops in Ramadi say they are loath to quickly pull out for fear of letting the insurgency rise once more in the city.

Despite the increase in forces in both Baghdad and Ramadi, Army Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, the U.S. officer in charge of day-to-day operations in Iraq, said in an interview Wednesday that he did not think the new security plan would make it impossible to draw down troops in the fall.

The military is not putting a specific timetable on the Baghdad plan, but like the Ramadi offensive, it is expected to be a long, manpower-intensive operation that will move through the capital neighborhood by neighborhood and could take months.

"Not overnight, and we are not going to fix it immediately," Chiarelli said when asked about the timetable.

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