WASHINGTON – The U.S. military is likely to keep an expanded force of about 160,000 troops in Iraq through the Dec. 15 election of a new government and then make a “fairly rapid” reduction to what has been the standard troop level of about 138,000, a senior Pentagon official said Thursday.
Marine Corps Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, the director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Pentagon news conference that there currently are “just short of” 160,000 American troops in Iraq.
“That’s sort of the baseline figure that we think we’ll probably see on through the election period,” Conway said, adding that the number would fluctuate as fresh Army forces arrive to replace those completing their one-year tours of duty.
Conway also confirmed a Los Angeles Times report that the Pentagon is considering putting a general with more seniority in charge of a task force that has been struggling for two years to defeat the main weapon Iraqi insurgents are using to kill and maim American troops: the improved explosive device, or homemade bomb.
In Iraq on Thursday, Al-Qaida in Iraq claimed it shot down a U.S. attack helicopter that crashed, killing two Marines.
The AH-1W Super Cobra crashed Wednesday near Ramadi during daylong fighting in the insurgent stronghold 70 miles west of Baghdad. In addition to the two crewmen, an American lieutenant died when a bomb exploded as he was rushing to the crash site.
Another U.S. soldier died Thursday in a roadside bombing northeast of Baghdad, the military said.
In its statement, al-Qaida in Iraq said that its military wing “downed a Super Cobra attack helicopter in Ramadi with a Strella rocket, thanks be to God.” The authenticity of the statement could not be determined.
The U.S. military said the cause of the crash had not been determined. However, Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch told reporters Thursday that witnesses “believe they saw a munition fired at the helicopter and saw the helicopter break in pieces in midair and then crash.”