By LOLITA C. BALDOR
The U.S. military will likely maintain or possibly even increase the current force levels of more than 140,000 troops in Iraq through next spring, the top US. commander in the Middle East said Tuesday in one of the gloomiest assessments yet of how quickly American forces can be brought home.
Gen. John Abizaid, commander of U.S. Central Command, said military leaders would consider adding troops or extending the Iraq deployments of other units if needed.
"If it’s necessary to do that because the military situation on the ground requires that, we’ll do it," he said. "If we have to call in more forces because it’s our military judgment that we need more forces, we’ll do it."
Abizaid said that right now the current number of troops "are prudent force levels" that are achieving the needed military effect.
His comments came as U.S. political leaders continue to face declining public support for the war in Iraq, as they head into the coming congressional elections. Abizaid, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Peter Pace are expected to meet with members of Congress later this week.
Late last year, military leaders had said they hoped to reduce troop levels to about 100,000 by the end of this year. But Abizaid said Tuesday that the rising sectarian violence and slow progress of the Iraqi government made that impossible.
"I think that this level probably will have to be sustained through the spring," he told military reporters. "I think that we’ll do whatever we have to do to stabilize Iraq and Afghanistan and use the military power of the U.S. to do that."
Abizaid cautioned that the solution to much of Iraq’s violence — both sectarian and insurgents — is not necessarily "throwing more American units at the problem."
Instead, he said it is vital that the Iraqi government improve the political and economic conditions in the embattled country, as part of an effort to get the "angry young men" off the streets. And he said there will be more emphasis on the U.S. military teams that are training the Iraqi army and police forces.
There are currently 147,000 U.S. forces in Iraq — up more than 20,000 from the troop levels in late June. Rumsfeld extended the one-year deployment of an Alaska-based brigade in July, as part of the effort to stem the escalating violence in Baghdad.
Abizaid said Tuesday that there are no plans to further extend the deployment of the Alaska Stryker brigade.
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