By PAULINE JELINEK and RYAN LENZ
Military commanders in Iraq are developing a plan to move as many as 5,000 U.S. troops with armored vehicles and tanks into the country’s capital in an effort to quell escalating violence, defense officials said Thursday.
It was unclear whether the Stryker troops, who are in northern Iraq, would be among those going to Baghdad.
Under the plan to bolster security in Baghdad, U.S. troops would be teamed with Iraqi police and army units and make virtually every operation in the city a joint effort, one military official said. Another said movement of some troops into Baghdad had already begun.
All flights out for soldiers currently at the end of their deployment were canceled as of Tuesday, as commanders wrestled with the plan and how to supply troops needed for it, a third official said.
All spoke on condition of anonymity because the plan had not been finalized and discussions were private.
President Bush broadly outlined a plan to increase U.S. and Iraqi forces in Baghdad during Tuesday’s visit to Washington by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. But little detail was provided.
Officials said it would involve shifting some U.S. forces to the capital from other locations in the country. There were about 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq on Thursday, and about 30,000 were in Baghdad prior to the new plan.
Assembling more troops and armor in Baghdad is aimed at calming violence that has only increased in the capital since mid-June, when al-Maliki launched the city’s biggest security crackdown since the U.S.-led invasion.
As part of the new plan, about four companies of military police, or about 400 soldiers, are moving to Baghdad, and the remainder of a reserve force that had been in Kuwait — equaling about another 400 troops — has also gone into Iraq, officials said earlier this week.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman declined to give details of the plan, saying the top commander in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, "is working through a very tough problem" on how to manage the security crackdown with the new resources planned.
Defense experts inside and outside the Pentagon worry that diverting U.S. troops to Baghdad could weaken their ability in other parts of the country. And they say the plan reverses an earlier effort to make Americans less visible and put Iraqi forces out front in the fight.
Others argued that Baghdad is the central problem at the moment and that Iraqis in the capital will feel safer with the heavier armored presence.
British Ambassador to Iraq William Patey said Wednesday that the security problem was made worse because Iraqis have lost confidence in the police and that evidence suggests some members of the police are linked to Shiite militias and Sunni insurgent groups.
Asked if bringing tanks and armor back to Baghdad would run counter to plans for reducing the visibility of U.S. forces, one military official said: "There is definitely a fine line between overwhelming amounts of combat power versus enough to make you feel safe.
"I don’t think we’re talking a tank on every street corner," the official said.
The 172nd uses the lighter, faster Stryker troop-carrying vehicle and includes about 4,400 troops. At least 200 have returned to Alaska; others were in Kuwait awaiting transportation home. It wasn’t clear Thursday how many members of the unit remained in Iraq.
Rumsfeld has extended tours of duty before in the war, including several times last fall when U.S. forces were increased to deal with violence at the time of the Iraqi elections.
The move to bolster Baghdad security comes amid growing concern about the course of the 3-year-old war among U.S. lawmakers and the American public.
Military commanders had hoped troop levels could be reduced this year.
Associated Press writer Ryan Lenz contributed to this story from Baghdad and AP writer Lolita C. Baldor from Washington.
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