The U.S. military, faced with unrelenting violence in Baghdad, is expected to delay the departure of about 4,000 troops due to leave Iraq in the coming days in order to boost the size of the U.S. force, officials said on Wednesday.
In a sign that any significant cut in the 130,000-strong U.S. force in Iraq is unlikely soon, officials also said there are no plans to drop below the current level of 15 combat brigades this fall, as had previously been discussed.
The military, as it has been done periodically during the 3-year-old war, would temporarily increase the size of the U.S. force by extending the overlap between newly arriving units and those leaving.
A defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions, said at least 200 troops from the Alaska-based 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, operating primarily in the Mosul area in northern Iraq, already had left Iraq after a yearlong deployment.
But the remaining roughly 3,700 troops are expected to have their departure delayed, the officials said. Officials could not say how long they will remain, but typically these delays have lasted a few weeks to a couple of months.
President George W. Bush said on Tuesday at a news conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki that more U.S. and Iraqi troops would be deployed in Baghdad from other parts of Iraq to try to curb sectarian violence in the capital amid concern that the country is sliding toward civil war.
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 during the return of sovereignty in 2004 — the Pentagon has delayed the departure of thousands of troops to beef up the American troop presence temporarily.
Officials said commanders in Iraq also were looking at shifting some troops from other parts of Iraq into Baghdad. In addition, 400 soldiers who had been held in reserve in Kuwait have been brought into the country, they said.
Another defense official said the idea would be to create “a momentary overlap of at least a brigade” — meaning roughly 3,500 troops. Another official said the increase might be “from the low 3,000s to the high 4,000s.”
A third defense official said there was concern over keeping troops, facing stress and peril, longer than they had expected. “It’s always painful to try to tell a unit they are staying longer than they were supposed to stay,” this official said.
Opinion polls show eroding U.S. public support for the war and Bush’s handling of it as congressional elections approach in November. The U.S. military death toll in the war, which began in March 2003, stood at 2,565 on Wednesday, with 19,157 wounded, the Pentagon said.
Army Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, last month expressed confidence that the military would be able to cut the size of the U.S. force there over the rest of the year. Defense officials months ago had said one option was to drop to about 100,000 troops.
But Bush, Casey and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld have emphasized that reductions in the U.S. force depended on the security situation in Iraq and the development of U.S-trained Iraqi government security forces.
(Additional reporting by Kristin Roberts)
© Reuters 2006.