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ARLINGTON, Va. — About 20,000 soldiers who were on the verge of returning home from a year in Iraq have been delayed indefinitely to help deal with a sudden breakdown in security there, Pentagon officials said Thursday.

“I’ve approved, at Gen. Abizaid’s request,” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said at a Thursday news conference, “the extension of roughly 20,000 forces, people who are currently in the theater, of which roughly a quarter are likely to be Guard and Reserve personnel.”

Most of the delayed force is 14,300 troops from the 1st Armored Division’s Germany-based 1st and 2nd Brigade Combat Teams, along with their aviation assets, an Army official said.

“The period will be for up to an additional 90 days, in Iraq, and up to 120 [additional] days, of deployment. If additional capability is needed beyond the 90 days, the current plan is to bring in additional forces,” Rumsfeld said.

The only other active-duty unit affected by the extension is the 2nd Armored Cavalry Division, from Fort Polk, La.

Officials from the 2nd ACR said as early as April 9 that about 2,800 soldiers from the regiment, along with 200 soldiers from Fort Polk’s Warrior Brigade support unit, would be delayed under the hold.

The rest of the troops affected by the delay are from “high-demand, low-quantity” Reserve units, including engineers, military police, medical personnel, transportation, and maintenance specialists.

About 2,000 of the reserve troops — mostly transportation specialists — are stationed at U.S. bases in Kuwait, not in Iraq.

One squadron from the 2nd ACR, with about 700 troops, already has returned home to Fort Polk and won’t be expected to go back to Iraq, an Army official said.

Nor will the 1st AD’s 3rd Brigade from Fort Riley, Kan., which also has returned home, the official said.

The delay breaks a promise made last summer by Pentagon officials, who said that servicemembers would serve for no longer than one year in Iraq before returning home to rest and reconstitute for at least one year.

But family members from the 1st Armored Division have told Stripes they’ve been told to expect 120 days of extra deployment for their soldiers.

The hold on 20,000 troops is considerably larger than more than the “two brigades’ worth of combat power,” that Central Command leader Gen. John Abizaid said Monday he had requested of Pentagon leaders.

Pentagon watchers widely predicted that Abizaid’s request would translate into 10,000 additional troops to augment the 115,000 troops who were supposed to make up the second major rotation in Iraq.

However, Abizaid did add a qualifier to his request on Monday, saying, “if not more,” and he refused to give a number, saying, “Numbers are never helpful.”

Abizaid also clearly signaled that the 1st Armored Division would play a role in the extension by saying “it’s logical to assume that there will be a delay in the arrival of some of those forces … home.”

Servicemembers’ families, meanwhile, began getting informal notification of the delay late last week, mostly through their Family Readiness Groups.

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