ARLINGTON, Va. — The unpopular Army policy that prevents soldiers from retiring or leaving the service at their scheduled time might end sometime in 2009, a top official said Monday.

As the demand for troops in Iraq comes down, “we should be able to get us weaned off of stop-loss,” Lt. Gen. James D. Thurman, deputy chief of staff for operations, told Pentagon reporters.

Thurman said he hoped — but couldn’t promise — that if the Army’s contribution to war zones stabilizes at around 15 brigades, the use of stop-loss could be ended by the end of fiscal 2009.

For the time being, Thurman said, troop “demand exceeds supply,” and stop-loss will continue.

All the services used stop-loss to some extent after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But only the Army still has the program, which critics call a backdoor draft, in place.

Stop loss is needed to cope with continued deployments to the Middle East while the Army finishes its expansion from 482,400 soldiers to 547,000, Thurman said.

More than 58,300 active and reserve-component soldiers have been affected by stop loss since 2002, according to Army statistics.

As of March — the latest numbers available — the Army had more than 12,200 soldiers held involuntarily under the stop-loss policy, according to the statistics, which were provided to Stars and Stripes on Tuesday by Lt. Col. Anne Edgecomb, an Army spokeswoman.

About 6,860 of those soldiers are on active duty. Another 1,488 are in the Army Reserve, and more than 3,879 are in the National Guard — about 1,000 more than normal, a number boosted by an unusually large deployment of Guard troops to Iraq in March, Edgecomb said.

Only soldiers who are deployed to Operations Iraqi Freedom or Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan are stop-lossed, so the number of soldiers held under the policy goes up and down depending on the number of soldiers who are deployed.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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