The top U.S. general in Iraq had hoped to be able to recommend what he called a "fairly significant" reduction in U.S. troops in the country this year. Instead, on Thursday Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld approved the general's request for 3,500 more troops. And that follows the general's decision to call in a reserve brigade from Kuwait earlier this year. Each brigade has about 3,500 troops. VOA Pentagon Correspondent Al Pessin reports on the implications of the turnaround in the U.S. troop outlook in Iraq.
The soldiers of the 172nd Stryker Combat Brigade Team and their families got the bad news on Thursday. The troops had been scheduled to finish their year-long assignment in Iraq at the end of August, and return to their base in Alaska, but they were ordered to stay for up to another four months.
Officers from that brigade were not available for comment, but the leader of another combat Brigade, Colonel John Tully, told reporters by teleconference Friday that no soldier wants his or her tour of duty extended. "A year is a long time over here and none of us look forward to being extended. But we all knew what the chances were coming over here. We don't like it, but we're soldiers and we do what we're told. And times like this is when leadership has to step up and drive on to get the mission accomplished," he said.
The brigade that was extended is expected to help in the effort to establish security in Baghdad. And Colonel Tully, whose troops patrol Baghdad's southern suburbs and areas farther south, says it is partly just a matter of presence. "From what I understand, basically, we're going to increase the presence on the streets. You know, 'a cop on every block' type thing, to get a handle on the sectarian violence that's causing all the problems in Baghdad right now," he said.
Analyst Lawrence Korb of the Center for Defense Information says more troops have been needed in Iraq for a long time. He says U.S. officials were counting on the establishment of Iraq's new government to ease the security situation, but instead the opposite has happened. "This new government has not been able to basically get its act together. It doesn't have the right people in the interior ministry and the defense ministry.It has not followed up on its pledge to dismantle the militias. And what's happened now is you not only have an insurgency, but you have a civil war on top of that," he said.
Korb, who was a senior defense department official in the 1980s, also blames U.S. officials for the spiraling violence, saying they have been denying that Iraq is in the midst of a civil war and delaying any concerted effort to deal with the situation.
Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman says the decision by the U.S. commander in Iraq, General George Casey, to keep the Stryker Brigade and its highly mobile armored vehicles in the country, and to also keep another American brigade he called in from Kuwait several months ago, resulted from a new situation. "The facts are that you have a security challenge that has emerged in Baghdad that General Casey, along with the Iraqi government, has said that we need to address," he said.
Whitman says all decisions on U.S. troop levels are based on the extent of violence, the capabilities of the new Iraqi security forces, the development of government services and related factors. And he points out that there was never a promise to reduce the number of U.S. troops this year. "We will base the decisions with respect to the number of U.S. forces on the ground in Iraq on the recommendations of the commander, which he will determine based on the conditions as to whether or not they need to go up, or whether they need to go down. And we've always said that those adjustments could go either way," he said.
On Thursday, the defense department also completed the process of designating enough units for deployment to Iraq next year to maintain the current troop level. Whitman says all the troops may not go, if the situation improves.
But Lawrence Korb is among many analysts who say a policy change is needed before any U.S. troop reduction is likely. "There's no potential for reducing the troops anytime soon if you continue to have a policy which says 'We'll stand down when they (the Iraqi forces) stand up,' because obviously they're not standing up and they don't seem to have as much incentive as they need to stand up," he said.
There are currently about 127,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. The department spokesman, Bryan Whitman, says that could go up to about 134,000 in the coming months, including support units. But he emphasizes that the extension of the Stryker brigade and the deployment plan for next year are flexible, and that the troop levels will be adjusted based on the security situation and the abilities of the Iraqi military, police and government.