Pentagon weighs troop extension for Iraq
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Pentagon is thinking about lengthening tours of duty for all active-duty Army units in Iraq to 15 months instead of 12 as the military struggles to supply enough troops for the conflict.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates could make a decision on that proposal and others in the coming days, said a defense official speaking on condition of anonymity because the plan has not been approved.
It is the third option to become known in the last several days in what has become a drumbeat of unsettling news for a military strained by two wars over the last five years.
Officials on Monday said some 13,000 National Guard troops were receiving orders alerting them to prepare for possible deployment to Iraq – meaning a second tour for several thousand of them. Officials said a final decision to deploy the four infantry combat brigades later this year will be based on conditions on the ground and named specific Guard units based in Arkansas, Indiana, Oklahoma and Ohio.
The Pentagon said the Guard units would serve as replacement forces in the regular troop rotation for the war, and would not be connected to the controversial military buildup that was ordered by President Bush and which officials say is starting to show some success in curbing violence in Baghdad.
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Word has also emerged that Defense Department officials were considering a plan to extend by up to four months the tours of duty for as many as 15,000 U.S. troops already in Iraq as a way to maintain the buildup past the summer.
There are currently 145,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, and when the buildup is completed by June, there would be more than 160,000, officials are calculating.
Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman said Wednesday that with the way the rotation schedule is laid out now, the force size would begin to fall after August unless some action is taken – sending some troops earlier than expected or keeping some beyond their planned homecomings.
He declined to confirm details of any of the options under consideration.
“What you’re hearing from various people are different ideas that are being looked at,” Whitman said.
He also said no decision has been made to maintain the buildup after August, but others have said that they expect or want to keep the level that high through the year and possibly until February.
“There are any number of planning scenarios that the department is looking at that would address things such as how long you would maintain” the buildup, Whitman said.
“Some would keep the … force level essentially the same,” he said. “Some scenarios have it going up, some scenarios have it going down.”
Meanwhile, an Iraqi government spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, cautioned against “premature” withdrawal of U.S. troops, saying that would create an opportunity for Iran and the al-Qaida terror network to make inroads in Iraq.
Al-Dabbagh, asked at news conference at the United States Institute for Peace in Washington about congressional efforts to force a pullout of U.S. combat troops, said, “They should finish the job.”
He said no Iraqi wants U.S. forces to stay a long time, but “there is a job to be done.” With Iraq’s approval he said some troops could be safely withdrawn later this year or early in 2008.
But, he said, “the premature withdrawal of American troops will create a vacuum” and “Iran is a danger and al-Qaida is a danger.”
Associated Press Diplomatic Writer Barry Schweid contributed to this report.