San Diego Union Tribune

U.S. plans to maintain level of troops in Iraq


May 5, 2004

WASHINGTON Suffering rising casualties and a growing threat of more violence, the United States yesterday abandoned plans to reduce its military force in Iraq sometime this summer and said it would keep about 135,000 troops there at least another year and a half.

Roughly 4,500 additional Marines, about half of them from Camp Pendleton, will be sent to Iraq to bolster the coalition forces in anticipation of increased fighting as the transition to some Iraqi sovereignty approaches, the Pentagon said yesterday.

The Marine units returning to Iraq are the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit from Camp Pendleton, the 24th MEU from Camp Lejeune, N.C., and a small medical unit and an amphibious tractor company, said Capt. Kevin McSweeney, a Marine spokesman.

In the official rotation plan announced last year, troop levels in Iraq had been expected to fall to about 115,000 by the end of this month.

The immediate impact of the change in deployment orders is that 10,000 soldiers and Marines will be sent to Iraq this summer in the first installment to replace 20,000 members of the 1st Armored Division and 2nd Light Cavalry Regiment, whose one-year tours were extended by 90 days after guerrilla violence erupted last month in and around Fallujah and Najaf.

The Pentagon plans to reprogram money to pay for the unanticipated expenses of maintaining the extra troops in Iraq, although senior members of Congress from both parties have asked whether and even when the administration will step forward and propose a supplemental budget bill.

Further complicating planning for Iraq were announcements by several allies, most notably Spain, that they were pulling out their troops, and the absence of promises from other nations to join the mission or increase their commitments.

As the June 30 date for returning sovereignty to a new government in Baghdad approaches, "You're going to have a period of uncertainty from now, and you're also going to have a period of increased attacks," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said yesterday. "I mean, we just have to expect that."

Rumsfeld said that he received a request from Abizaid to maintain the current level of U.S. forces in Iraq, which is between 135,000 and 138,000. "Recently, I approved deployment of approximately 10,000 replacement personnel," he said during a Pentagon news conference. "Other units are now being identified and will be approved in the coming days."

The roughly 4,500 troops from the two MEUs and the other small units will add to the nearly 25,000 Marines and sailors currently in Iraq under command of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, which has its headquarters at Camp Pendleton.

But the additional Marines will not join the 1st MEF, which is responsible for the volatile Anbar province west of Baghdad. The fighting with Sunni Muslim militants in Fallujah and Ramadi has killed more than 61 members of the 1st MEF in the past six months.

Instead, the Marines and an Army unit will take over the part of Baghdad area to the south, now held by the Army's 1st Armored Division and the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment. Those soldiers have been engaged in the recent surge of fighting spurred by a militant Shiite Muslim cleric, Muqtada al-Sadar. The Marines will be under the direct command of the Army officer responsible for that area, said McSweeney, the Marine spokesman.

The Marine reinforcements for Iraq are expected to leave "within the next 70 days," McSweeney said, but could not say exactly when.

Besides the Marines, the fresh combat forces ordered to Iraq will include the 10th Mountain Division's 2nd Brigade, based at Fort Drum, N.Y. The 10th Mountain Division's brigade has been home only nine months since its last deployment, even though Army officials had tried to assure soldiers a year to rest and retrain between overseas missions.

A Pentagon statement said that Army National Guard and Reserve units will deploy with those forces. In a separate order, an additional 37,000 troops for combat support and combat service support duties, who already were notified to prepare for service in Iraq, have now been approved by Rumsfeld for deployment, the statement said. Of that 37,000, about 16,000 are reservists.

Pentagon and military officials emphasized that a calming security situation in Iraq could allow Abizaid to reduce the number of forces over coming months but that the Defense Department also would be prepared to add even more troops should the situation deteriorate and reinforcements be requested.

The Marine units in the new order are quick-deploying combat forces, designed to sweep into hot spots around the world, and their accelerated departure for Iraq carries a risk should hostilities erupt, for example, in the Korean peninsula, Africa or Latin America.

But Lt. Gen. Richard A. Cody, the Army's deputy chief of staff for operations, said yesterday that a highly mobile "division-ready brigade" from the 82nd Airborne, a veteran unit that is completing its refitting and retraining, would be certified ready by Friday for deployment in a crisis.

Lt. Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, director of operations for the Joint Staff, said yesterday that the level of troops still committed to Iraq was of great concern to military planners, but that the stress on the force was manageable.

"I think we can handle the tempo," he said. "It is demanding. There is no question about it."

While specific force levels over coming months in Iraq will depend "on how circumstances develop," he added that "certainly for the next rotation we can maintain this level of effort."