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ARLINGTON, Va. – The Defense Department is planning to maintain the current U.S. troop in Iraq through spring, a top U.S. general said Thursday.

There are currently 20 brigade combat teams in Iraq as part of the buildup of U.S. troops known as the “surge.”

Lt. Gen. Carter Ham told reporters Thursday that five brigade combat teams now in Iraq will be replaced this fall.

The move would keep U.S. troop strength in Iraq at 20 brigade combat teams "absent any decisions" to change force levels in Iraq before spring, said Ham, director for operations of the Joint Staff.

“We are planning to maintain the current levels until spring of ’08, that’s the point at which the first of the so-called ‘surge brigades’ expires,” Ham said.

After Ham made his comments, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman explained that the brigades being replaced are part of the 15 that were in Iraq before the “surge” began.

He also said the Defense Department plans for any number of contingencies.

Also Thursday, Ham stressed that it decisions on U.S. force levels in Iraq would be made after the overall commander in Iraq makes his progress report on the “surge” this September.

The report is expected to look at “battlefield geometry,” or the right level of force, where it should be inside Iraq and the pace at which force levels might change, Ham said,

“So battlefield geometry is a good descriptor of that," Ham said."We’ll need to wait and then see Gen. [David] Petraeus decisions as to how quickly or slowly those changes will be, if any."

The brigades’ replacement this fall is expected to temporarily increase the number of U.S. troops in Iraq to 171,000, but that number should fall back to 162,000 as the replaced units leave Iraq.

Ham also said there are no plans to extend troops currently on 15-month tours to Iraq.

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