BAGHDAD, Iraq – The U.S. military has dropped plans to boost its presence in Iraq by more than 20,000 troops to safeguard elections here, a senior U.S. commander indicated Friday, as Iraq, Afghanistan and Hurricane Katrina stretched American forces.
The United States now plans to deploy 2,000 more troops for the Oct. 15 referendum on Iraq’s constitution, bringing the U.S. total here “pretty close” to 140,000, Lt. Gen. John Vines told reporters in Washington during a video news conference.
The United States has 138,000 troops in Iraq. Pentagon officials said in late August they expected to temporarily boost that number to 160,000 as part of U.S. and Iraqi efforts to block an expected increase in any insurgent attacks timed to the October vote and December parliamentary elections. Pentagon officials at the time said the troop increase would be accomplished mainly by delaying the return home of some units whose tours in Iraq were ending and speeding up the arrival of others slated to replace them.
The overlap, combined with extra deployments, would have increased the U.S. presence to roughly the same level as in January, when Iraq held national elections. Vines said Friday, however, that Iraq now has far more of its own troops available.
Vines made no mention Friday of the 160,000 figure from Pentagon officials late last month. Vines’ aides could not be reached for comment Friday night, and a senior military spokesman in Iraq had no explanation for the lower number.
“Plans may have changed,” said Lt. Col. Steven Boylan, the spokesman, who said he had not known of the Pentagon’s plans to have 160,000 troops on hand for the elections.
Vines’ announcement came as complaints grew in the United States that deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan have slowed the government’s response to victims of Katrina.
“I just completely disagree,” President Bush said when asked about the complaints Friday as he toured areas hit by the hurricane. “We’ve got a job to defend the country on the war in terror” and to aid Americans at home, Bush said. “We have plenty of resources to do both.”
In western Iraq, meanwhile, local leaders in the predominantly Sunni Arab region appealed Friday to American troops to stay away from voting centers, fearing that would only draw attacks by foreign insurgents.
Some insurgent groups in western Iraq have urged Sunnis to vote against the constitution on Oct. 15 and have promised not to attack American troops on that day. However, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s foreign-led al-Qaida in Iraq organization has said any voter is a legitimate target. The group already has been linked to the killings of several Sunnis working to register Sunni voters.
Residents of the western city of Fallujah intend to secure the voting centers themselves, the police chief, Gen. Sabah Khalil Ani, told reporters there. “The tribal leaders and people in Fallujah asked us to keep U.S. forces away from the centers,” Ani said.
Residents, not American Marines, should protect the polling places, said Sheik Abdullah Mahmood, the cleric at the Farouj mosque in Fallujah. Marine guards would only convince Iraqis “that Americans wrote the constitution and not the Iraqis,” he said.
Boylan, the U.S. military spokesman, said Iraqi forces would take the lead in security in the October and December votes.