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Citing senior Pentagon and military officials, The New York Times reported Wednesday that Defense Secretary Robert Gates has decided to freeze plans for further reducing Army forces in Europe and will maintain about 40,000 soldiers in Germany and Italy, about 16,000 more than had been envisioned under a drawdown that began two years ago.

According to the Times, Gates accepted proposals of the two senior Army officers in Europe, who advocated keeping the larger force on the continent.

Army Gen. Bantz J. Craddock, head of U.S. European Command, testified on the matter at a House Armed Services Committee in March, and in May, Craddock called for a troop-to-task analysis to determine whether there were enough troops left in Europe to fulfill missions.

The reason, he told reporters at the time, was that he was “concerned, based on indicators, that there are things the European Command is tasked to do — missions and tasks we’ve been given from the Department [of Defense] — that I’m seeing we are not doing.”

And last month, Gen. David McKiernan, commander of U.S. Army Europe, told reporters at the Pentagon that he wanted to keep four combat brigades — not two. Specifically, he wanted to keep the Schweinfurt, Germany-based 2nd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division; the Baumholder, Germany-based 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division; the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team in Italy; and the 2nd Cavalry (Stryker) Regiment from Vilseck, Germany.

“U.S. Army Europe absolutely supports the initiative,” U.S. Army Europe spokesman Col. Lew Boone told Stripes on Wednesday.

Boone said USAREUR had not received any formal notification, but he said, “We feel confident that the DOD will make the announcement delaying the return of the two brigade combat teams.”

But spokesmen for both Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen on Wednesday denied that Gates has made a decision.

“The secretary has listened carefully to the case made by European command and the Army, and appreciates their desire to slow the redeployment of two brigades right now,” said Geoff Morrell, a spokesman for Gates, told Stripes.

However, “a final, formal decision has not been made yet,” he said.

Navy Capt. John Kirby, Mullen’s spokesman, said that based on conversations with officials who work closely in the secretary’s inner circle, “my understanding is that the secretary is not imminently poised to make a decision,” Kirby said.

About five years ago, the military embarked on a plan to reduce forces and close bases in Europe, mostly in Germany. Under the plan, the U.S. Army’s troop strength in Europe would be reduced to 24,000 soldiers from 62,000 over the next few years.

The Times wrote that while Gates has decided on sustaining Army levels in Europe, senior officials said his formal order awaits analysis by DOD lawyers and legislative specialists on how the plan would conform to decisions by the Base Realignment and Closing Commission, which mandated a number of troop relocations.

Senior Pentagon officials familiar with Gates’ thinking said he was swayed by practical budgetary concerns as much as by the strategic policy arguments put forward by Craddock and McKiernan, the Times wrote.

The Army told Gates that not all of the housing was ready for the returning soldiers, and that it could waste millions of dollars to prepare temporary residences, and to move the troops and their families twice, first to interim residences, then to permanent ones, the officials told the Times.

In Baumholder, home to the 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division, news that the troop drawdown could be coming to a halt has started to trickle into city hall.

Mayor Volkmar Pees said Wednesday that he has not heard anything official regarding the soldiers in his town. But the long-serving mayor has long been hopeful that the Army will stay. A freeze in the troop drawdown would be cause to celebrate, he said.

“If the Americans stay,” Pees said, “it’s something worth opening a bottle of champagne for.”

Stars and Stripes reporters Nancy Montgomery and Lisa Burgess contributed to this story.

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