Pentagon to raise Iraq troop level to 150,000 for elections
ARLINGTON, Va. — The Pentagon is extending deployments of more than 10,300 soldiers and Marines in Iraq for two to four months and bringing in an additional 1,500 soldiers from the United States to assist with security in preparation for national elections, set for Jan. 30, defense officials said Wednesday.
U.S. troop levels in Iraq will rise from about 138,000 to more than 150,000 for the period covering the elections, according to Army Brig. Gen. David Rodriguez, deputy director for regional operations in the Joint Staff’s Operations Directorate.
That is the highest number of U.S. troops in Iraq since initial combat operations ended in May 2003, Rodriguez told Pentagon reporters during a Wednesday news conference.
Two battalions of the 82nd Airborne Brigade (the Division Ready Brigade, or DRB), about 1,500 paratroopers, will be sent to Iraq from their base at Fort Bragg, N.C., “shortly” and will be in Iraq by mid-December, Rodriguez told Pentagon reporters.
The DRB, sometimes called the Army’s “911 emergency forces” is designed so that one battalion is able to be deployed within 18 hours of notification, and the second, within 24 hours.
And in Iraq, the following troops have been extended:
About 2,300 Marines from the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, which includes Marines from Okinawa, Hawaii and California. The Marines were due to return home in January and will now “come out March 15,” Rodriguez said. Counting their time aboard ship to return to home base, the total deployment for the Marines will be 9½ months, rather than the normal seven months, Rodriguez said.About 4,400 soldiers from the Army’s 2nd Brigade of the 25th Infantry Division, based in Schofield Barracks, Hawaii.The brigade was supposed to return home in the beginning of January, but will now spend an additional 60 days in Iraq, Rodriguez said.About 3,500 soldiers from the 2nd Brigade of the 1st Cavalry Division, Fort Hood, Texas. The 2nd of the 1st Cavalry unit was supposed to return home in November, but was extended to Jan. 12 earlier this fall. Their new redeployment will be “about 45 days past that,” or the end of February, Rodriguez said.About 160 soldiers of the 66th Transportation Company, based in Kaiserslautern, Germany, were due to depart Iraq in early January but instead will stay until early March — “about 60 days more,” Rodriguez said.However, extensions are not unknown for some Marines, Brig. Gen. Robert B. Neller, director of the Marine Corps Operations Division, said during the press conference. He noted that the 26th MEU was sent first to Iraq, then diverted on its way home for a mission in Liberia last year.
The additional deployment time for the 31st MEU “will have some potential impacts” on the Marine Corps’ rotation schedule, “but we’ll adjust,” Neller said.
The additional troops were requested, Rodriguez said, by “commanders on the ground,” including combat commander Army Gen. John Abizaid, head of the Florida-based U.S. Central Command, which has operational responsibility for Iraq.
Rodriguez warned that U.S. commanders in Iraq are continuing to assess the situation, and that conditions there “may result in additional adjustments” to troop levels.
Nevertheless, at this time, Rodriguez said, “there are no plans to accelerate the deployments” of any Iraq-bound units, including the 3rd Infantry Division, which analysts have suggested in recent weeks might contribute to higher force levels during the election.
Instead of bringing in fresh troops, commanders decided they needed to keep the most experienced troops in Iraq longer, Rodriguez said.
“The ground commanders believe the most experienced troops, the ones who have been there longest … know the ground best,” he said.
Some organizations representing Iraq’s Sunni minority population have pledged to boycott the Jan. 30 elections, and even some members of Iraq’s coalition government have suggested postponing the event until the security situation in the country is stabilized.
But the Bush administration is holding firm to the Jan. 30 event, which is mandated by an interim constitution signed by Iraqi’s provisional government in the spring.
And Rodriguez said that even if the elections are postponed, “the plan is that [the extended troops] will come home at the end of the extension.”