WASHINGTON - Most of the war-weary soldiers of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, which spearheaded the invasion of Iraq, will remain in the troubled country indefinitely, division officials announced yesterday, though Pentagon officials said they still hope to have the entire division home by the fall, as Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told Congress last week.
Richard Olson, a spokesman at Fort Stewart, Ga., where the 16,500-soldier division is based, said two of its three brigades will not be returning home in August and September as scheduled. The other unit, the 3rd Brigade, has been arriving at Fort Benning, Ga., and will complete its homecoming this month, he said.
"What we're trying to do is not speculate when they'll be home," Olson said of the soldiers remaining in Iraq. "That just raises their hopes. [Division officers] don't want to make any estimates anymore."
In an e-mail this week to Army spouses that was obtained by the Associated Press, the division's commander, Maj. Gen. Buford C. Blount III, said he was uncertain how long the soldiers would remain in Iraq.
"I wish I could tell you how long ... but everything I have told you before has changed," he wrote. On July 7, Blount said the soldiers would begin returning home by summer's end.
In his e-mail, Blount said the division had been ordered to stay "due to the uncertainty of the situation in Iraq and the recent increase in attacks on the coalition forces."
But last night, Lawrence DiRita, a spokesman for Rumsfeld, said: "The intent remains that the remainder of the division will be home by the fall. The details of the redeployment of the division are still being worked out."
Rumsfeld told Congress last week that one of the division's two remaining brigades would be home in August and the other in September.
A senior defense official who requested anonymity attempted to explain the confusion, saying that Blount might not have had all of the information about the deployment timetables of other U.S. units in Iraq or those of soldiers from other nations. Rumsfeld and top officers are working on a rotation schedule, but it is uncertain when the details will be announced.
Rep. Jack Kingston, a Georgia Republican whose district includes Fort Stewart, said yesterday that he would try to clarify the timetable for the 3rd Infantry's return.
"If this current news about the delay holds, it will be a devastating blow to the families," Kingston said. "I am confident that the Fort Stewart leadership will continue to do all they can to support the families during this time of uncertainty."
The longest tour
The 3rd Infantry Division has been the Army's longest-serving unit in the region. The division's 3rd Brigade spent six months in Kuwait and returned home in November, only to return to Kuwait one month later. The 2nd Brigade arrived in Kuwait in September and was expected back next month, while the 1st Brigade went in January and was to return to Fort Stewart in September.
The division already has seen its deployment extended once. After President Bush's announcement May 1 that major combat had ended, its soldiers were told that they would return home by June. Another delay could further erode the morale of soldiers and families.
Further delay also is likely to raise new questions among lawmakers who have expressed increasing concern that the Army, which has more than half its 10 combat divisions deployed in Iraq, is stretched too thinly and that other nations are not contributing enough troops to the peacekeeping mission.
With its impending rotation plan, Pentagon officials will determine which other active-duty Army units, and possibly some National Guard units, will be pressed into Iraq duty in the coming months. About 145,000 American troops are now in Iraq and that force level could extend into next year, according to Gen. Tommy R. Franks, who commanded the U.S.-led invasion.
A gloomy situation
The 3rd Infantry Division's scheduled June rotation out was thwarted by the deteriorating situation on the ground in Iraq. What began as looting and lawlessness has descended into almost daily attacks on U.S. forces. The division suffered 36 combat deaths, more than any other in the war, officials said.
As division officials announced the extension of its tour, the Army said a 3rd Infantry Division soldier was killed and at least six wounded early yesterday in West Baghdad when their convoy was attacked with rocket-propelled grenades.
Last week, two days after Blount told his soldiers that they would be going home by fall, Rumsfeld echoed those comments on Capitol Hill. The defense secretary told the Senate Armed Services Committee that one of the division's brigades would return home this month and that the other two brigades would soon follow.
"The 2nd Brigade, the plan is that they would return in August, having been there something like 10 months," Rumsfeld said. "And the 1st Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division is scheduled to return in September, and they would - they have been in there since about January, so that would be a total of about nine months."
The next day, Franks appeared before the House Armed Services Committee, where Rep. Solomon P. Ortiz, a Texas Democrat, expressed concerns that Army troops were not coming home fast enough.
"We seem to be getting a lot of mail from wives, families of the Army troops who are there," Ortiz said. "They tell us the Air Force has gone back, the Marines have gone back, the Navy has gone back ... but our soldiers have not been rotated."
Franks praised the 3rd Infantry Division for spearheading the advance on Baghdad in "historically unprecedented time" and said one of the units was on its way home.
"The second [brigade] will begin its redeployment next month, and the third and final brigade ... will be out of Iraq in September," Franks said.
Last month, a reporter from The Sun traveled with the division into Fallujah, a city west of Baghdad that is a cauldron of support for Saddam Hussein and the scene of many guerrilla attacks on U.S. troops. The brigade, known as the Spartans, was exhausted and frustrated, having been given a May or June rotation date only to have it revoked.
"They probably experienced some of the heaviest and most intense fighting since Mogadishu [Somalia] and Vietnam," Lt. Col. Gary Luck, commander of the brigade's China Battalion said at the time. "They were constantly on the move. Their officers slept for a few hours a week. There was the stress of combat. They're asking, 'How much do I have to give of myself before I've given enough?'"
Yesterday, family members at Fort Stewart were upset by the news of an indefinite deployment.
Olson, the base spokesman, said about 70 wives of division soldiers were getting together to draft a letter to members of Congress.
Tasha Moore, whose husband, Capt. Daniel Moore, deployed with the division this year, told the Associated Press: "Every time a soldier is shot and killed it comes to mind, 'Is that my husband?' I don't think the government understands what a husband or a wife or children are going through every day."
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