Friday, July 28, 2006

US boosts Iraq troop levels amid Baghdad violence

US boosts Iraq troop levels amid Baghdad violence
By Will Dunham

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Thursday ordered about 3,500 U.S. troops in Iraq to stay up to four months past their scheduled departure, boosting U.S. forces in an attempt to curb unrelenting violence in Baghdad.

The move, involving the 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team from Fort Wainwright in Alaska, is the latest sign that any significant reduction in the size of the 130,000-strong U.S. force in Iraq is unlikely soon.

It comes after President George W. Bush said on Tuesday after meeting visiting Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki that more U.S. and Iraqi troops would be deployed in Baghdad from elsewhere in Iraq to confront mounting sectarian violence.

About 100 people have died daily in attacks between Iraqi factions in the past few weeks, raising fears of all-out civil war.

The Pentagon said Rumsfeld approved a request by Army Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, to extend the year-long tour of the brigade, which has operated primarily in the Mosul area in northern Iraq, by up to 120 days.

A senior defense official said most of the brigade is expected to operate in Baghdad, moving from relatively calm northern Iraq into a capital beset with car bombs, suicide bombers and kidnappings. The U.S. military is sending roughly 4,000 more troops to Baghdad.

By extending troops due to depart, the military, as it has done periodically during the 3-year-old war, will temporarily increase the overall size of the U.S. force by lengthening the overlap between newly arriving units and those heading out.


Opinion polls show eroding U.S. public support for the war ahead of congressional elections in November. Casey just last month expressed confidence the military would be able to cut the size of the U.S. force in Iraq over the rest of 2006.

"I think that no one ought to draw any conclusion as to what force levels will exist in the months ahead from this," Rumsfeld told reporters, saying conditions in Iraq will dictate force levels.

Rumsfeld said U.S. leaders "recognize it is a disappointment for them (soldiers) and their families, that hoped to be coming home in the next few weeks. ... They've done a terrific job, and we appreciate it."

The Pentagon also identified five additional Army and Marine Corps units, each with about 3,500 troops, slated to go to Iraq in force rotations beginning later this year. This allows for maintaining current troop levels into early 2008, while leaving open the option of cuts, officials said.

Pentagon policy is for Army units to serve 12-month tours in Iraq and Marine Corps units to serve seven-month tours.

But at key times in the war -- for example, during Iraqi elections in 2005 and the return of sovereignty in 2004 -- the Pentagon has delayed the departure of troops to beef up the American presence temporarily.

After some troops and families complained earlier in the war about lack of predictability in the length of tours in Iraq, the Pentagon instituted the rules on deployment duration. This was intended to reduce emotional stress for troops serving in a hostile and unpredictable environment.

The brigade replacing the 172nd in northern Iraq has arrived in Iraq. About 200 soldiers from the 172nd already are back in Alaska and 200 more have reached Kuwait en route home, but Army officials said some might have to return to Iraq.

Soldiers kept beyond a year in Iraq have received extra pay.

(Additional reporting by Vicki Allen)