San Diego Union Tribune

August 20, 2005

General: Marines may be in Iraq 3 more years
Hagee says Army's estimate is accurate

By Otto Kreisher

WASHINGTON – The Marine Corps is bracing for possibly three more years of large deployments to Iraq, Gen. Michael Hagee said.

Appearing at an American Enterprise Institute forum Thursday on the future of his service, the Marine Corps commandant was asked how long the Corps expected to sustain its heavy commitment in Iraq, considering that some Marines already are on their third tour there.

"We are right where General Schoomaker is on this as far as the planning is concerned," Hagee said, referring to Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff.

Schoomaker was quoted earlier in the week saying the Army already had drafted plans for troops in Iraq through 2007 and was beginning to work on a 2008 rotation.

But those planned troop deployments are based on "an event-driven scenario," Hagee said. "In the military, we plan for the worst case, because if you don't do that, you're going to be surprised."

If the Iraqi political process goes well and the Iraqi forces prove able to secure their country, the U.S. forces would be able to leave sooner than 2008, the top Marine officer said.

Army Gen. George Casey, the overall ground commander in Iraq, said this month that a "fairly substantial" reduction in the 138,000 U.S. troops could begin in the spring and summer of 2006 if the security and political situations improve.

President Bush, however, tried to dispel such speculation in the face of growing public and congressional pressure for an exit date.

More than 60,000 Marines and sailors went into Iraq under 1st Marine Expeditionary Force command during the initial assault in March 2003, driving from Kuwait to Baghdad and Tikrit in less than three weeks. Most of those Marines returned to their bases later that year. But about 23,000 Marines were ordered back within months as part of the "reconstruction and stabilization" process.

That rotation was led by the Camp Pendleton-based command, although it included Marines from the two other expeditionary forces and thousands of Marine reservists. They were involved in some of the most intense fighting of the "post-conflict" period, including battles against Shiite militia in Najaf and Sunni insurgents and foreign fighters in Fallujah.

That force was replaced by a similar-size deployment commanded by the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force from Camp Lejeune, N.C., but including 1st MEF and Marine Reserve personnel. They have fought in several pitched battles against Iraqi insurgents and foreign fighters in the volatile Anbar province.

More than 550 Marines have been killed and more than 4,000 wounded since March 2003, about 30 percent of the total U.S. toll of 1,861 killed and about 14,000 injured in Iraq as of yesterday.

During the same period, several Marine expeditionary units, of about 2,000 Marines and sailors, have gone into Afghanistan during their normal six-month deployments.

Now Lt. Gen. John Sattler is preparing to lead another force composed mainly of 1st MEF Marines and sailors back to Anbar around the turn of the year. The size and composition of the force has not been announced.

Sattler has said he is preparing his Marines to focus on training, guiding and supporting Iraqi security forces, rather than waging counter-insurgency operations, during the next deployment.

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