WASHINGTON – President Bush’s decision to increase the number of U.S. troops in violence-plagued Baghdad, Iraq, has forced commanders to extend the tours of 3,500 soldiers and appears to eliminate prospects for significant withdrawals of U.S. forces this year.
Just a month ago, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Gen. George S. Casey, came to Washington and presented a scenario to Bush in which the number of combat brigades in Iraq could be reduced from 14 to 12 by September. Another two brigades would have been removed by the end of the year. A typical brigade includes 3,500 soldiers.
Now, even Defense Department officials who talked of reductions are discounting the prospects of near-term cuts.
“Something has to give,” said one Defense official, speaking anonymously because of the sensitivity of deployment plans. “Either we keep everyone in place, or the security plan is not happening.”
Shelving plans to withdraw troops could have political repercussions. Republican candidates facing antiwar sentiment had been hoping to be able to point to troops coming home in significant numbers before the November elections.
The security plan, which Bush outlined Tuesday, calls for boosting U.S. troop levels in Baghdad from 9,000 to more than 13,000.
Thursday, the Pentagon said the 172nd Stryker Brigade, based at Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks, Alaska, would be staying in Iraq for up to four more months. The brigade had been scheduled to return home within weeks.
According to an Army official, the 172nd is expected to be sent to Baghdad from its base in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.
The brigade is a logical choice for the sprawling metropolis because its 21-ton Stryker vehicles are quiet, fairly fast and agile in city streets. The vehicles have stood up well to roadside bombs and rocket-propelled grenades, the insurgents’ preferred methods of attacking U.S. forces.
Another of the Army’s four Stryker brigades, the 3rd Brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division from Fort Lewis, Wash., is en route to Iraq, where it was scheduled to relieve the 172nd Brigade in Mosul. Some or all of it could now be sent to Baghdad, defense officials said.
Thursday, when Defense Department Secretary Donald Rumsfeld approved Casey’s request to extend the 172nd brigade’s stay in Iraq, members of the unit already were preparing to leave.
Last week, the brigade sent a 170-soldier advance team to Fort Wainwright to prepare for the unit’s arrival. The first 200 of the brigade’s 3,800-member main force were flown back to Alaska on Tuesday, according to Army Maj. Kirk Gohlke, the unit’s spokesman.
Gohlke said the 172nd commander, Army Col. Michael Shields, held a 90-minute video teleconference with families in Alaska on Wednesday night to inform them of the decision to extend the tour.