Tuesday, August 09, 2005

U.S. foresees autumn rise in troop levels in Iraq


U.S. foresees autumn rise in troop levels in Iraq

By Will Dunham

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States expects to raise its troop levels in Iraq this fall to bolster security for the planned October constitutional referendum and December elections for a new government, the Pentagon said on Monday.

Planning for a short-term bulge in troop levels comes as U.S. commanders, according to defense officials, also are working toward cutting the current force by 20,000 to 30,000 troops next spring and summer, contingent on progress in Iraq's political process and in developing Iraqi security forces.

The increase in troops also coincides with a spike in the number of Americans killed fighting the insurgency after a U.S.-led invasion toppled President Saddam Hussein in 2003. Since July 30, at least 41 U.S. troops have been killed in Iraq, including 18 on Aug. 3 alone.

A Pentagon tally released on Monday listed 1,829 U.S. military deaths since the start of the war in March 2003. Another 13,700 troops have been wounded in action.

Chief Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita said the Defense Department may delay the scheduled departure of an unspecified number of the 139,000 U.S. troops currently in Iraq, achieving a short-term increase in the size of the force as more troops flow into the country as previously planned.

Di Rita did not say how big an increase was envisioned. The Pentagon temporarily raised U.S. troop levels by about 20,000 to roughly 160,000 ahead of the historic Jan. 30 elections.

Asked if the size of the U.S. force this fall would reach 160,000 again, Di Rita said, "It could be more. It could be less."

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other Pentagon leaders have predicted a rise in violence by insurgents attempting to disrupt the upcoming voting.

The Iraqis have an Aug. 15 deadline for drafting a new constitution, which would face a referendum on Oct. 15. Elections for a new government are scheduled for two months later.

"We'll have a lot of flexibility to be able to let the forces stack on top of one another during the rotation (of troops in and out of Iraq) so that we can have a greater capability during key points," Di Rita said.

"We altered the rotations of units during the January election. And I think it's perfectly plausible to assume we'll do the same thing for this election," said Di Rita, who said final decisions had not been made.

The military previously announced it was augmenting the U.S. force in Afghanistan ahead of Sept. 18 parliamentary elections by sending an airborne battalion of 700 to 800 82nd Airborne Division paratroopers from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to join the 17,600 American troops already in the country.

Di Rita did not rule out the possibility of dispatching a similar unit from the United States to Iraq but said it was more likely an increase in troop levels would come about as a result of delaying the scheduled departure of soldiers already serving there while new ones arrived as planned.

U.S. Army soldiers generally serve tours of no more than a year on the ground in Iraq at a time, with Marines serving seven-month stints.