The fighting in Iraq is essentially over. But U.S. ground combat forces continue to flow into the country to keep the peace. Still, Pentagon officials are adamant about the United States having no plans for any long-term occupation.
The initial package of U.S. ground combat forces that fought their way to Baghdad numbered around 100,000. Now, Pentagon officials say, the size of the ground component is closer to 150,000, even though hostilities are all but over.
Army Brigadier General Vincent Brooks of the military's Central Command says U.S. ships and planes are heading home but the ongoing ground force build-up is needed to ensure security in Iraq.
"At the same time, we increase much of our presence on the ground. And that's required to be able to expand the physical presence that's required to create the conditions of stability and to provide security as required," he said. "And so you see a different flow happening with many of the land-component forces."
The current force flow, as the military calls it, has always been part of the war plan for Iraq. It has only been modified to eliminate some elements that commanders no longer think are needed. That means the continuing build-up is, in fact smaller than anticipated.
But Defense officials are adamant that there is no long-term U.S. plan for occupying Iraq. While they cannot predict how long American troops will have to stay, they insist it will not be one day longer than necessary.
To underscore that commitment, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld moved aggressively this week to knock down a published news report suggesting the Pentagon is seeking long-term access to as many as four bases in Iraq.
The report, in the New York Times, quoted senior Bush administration officials as saying it would allow Washington to project American influence into the heart of an unsettled region.
But Mr. Rumsfeld said it was not only false but unhelpful.
"There haven't been decisions made, there haven't been conclusions reached, and it's just a fact that the implication that, as it says here, that the United States is planning a long-term military relationship with an emerging government of Iraq - there isn't even an emerging government to plan it with at the present time - one that would grant the Pentagon access to military bases - a subject that has not come up with anybody senior - and "project American influence into the heart of the unsettled" region - I mean, not so! Not so." he said. "And I would say enormously unhelpful...The impression that's left around the world is that we plan to occupy the country, we plan to use their bases over the long period of time, and it's flat false."
Mr. Rumsfeld acknowledges the administration is re-evaluating the U.S. military footprint in the Gulf region.
But he suggests there are sufficient alternative bases available to make consideration of new sites in Iraq unnecessary.
Still, it was the Bush administration's own National Security Strategy document issued last September that indicated an interest in expanding, not reducing, the U.S. military presence abroad.
The 31-page document called the presence of American forces overseas "one of the most profound symbols of the U.S. commitments to allies and friends."
It went on to assert that to help "contend with uncertainty" and "meet the many security challenges" faced by the administration, the United States "will require bases and stations" not only in Western Europe, Japan and South Korea but other places. It said the United States would also need what are termed "temporary access arrangements for the long-distance deployment of U.S. forces."
The strategy paper did not specify any other locations. But since the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, the United States has secured access to a host of new bases, mainly in Central Asia and Eastern Europe. It has now added, at least temporarily, bases in Afghanistan and Iraq.