WASHINGTON - With no other countries stepping forward to provide troops for Iraq and with time slipping away, Pentagon officials say it is increasingly likely that fresh American forces - either National Guard or active duty - will have to begin replacing U.S. soldiers early next year.
Pentagon planners say they need to know within about two weeks whether they will have to mobilize and train U.S. replacement troops to take over in February or March, when the Army's 101st Airborne Division is scheduled to return home from Iraq.
Several foreign leaders have insisted on a new United Nations resolution that would grant the world body a major role in postwar Iraq before they will commit forces. The United States has drafted a new resolution that it hopes will meet remaining objections from U.N. members. A Security Council vote on the resolution has not been scheduled, but negotiations with other countries have picked up speed.
In a rotation plan unveiled this summer, Gen. John M. Keane, the Army's vice chief of staff, had said that a third multinational division would likely replace the 101st Airborne in Iraq.
Now, a senior defense official said, "It looks like the 101st will be relieved by American forces."
The official, who requested anonymity, said one Army National Guard brigade that has just been called to active duty might help replace the division.
Other Pentagon officials said reservists and active-duty forces, including Marines, could replace the 101st, which is stationed near Mosul in northern Iraq.
"In the next couple of weeks, if there's no third multinational division, then [U.S. troop] options will have to be made," said another senior Pentagon official who asked not to be named.
The Pentagon is expected to deploy three Army National Guard brigades - about 15,000 troops - early next year. That would be in addition to the 20,000 National Guard and Army Reserve troops in the Persian Gulf region.
National Guard and Reserve deployments have become increasingly necessary because active-duty forces have been stretched thin from deployments in Iraq and elsewhere.
For the Bush administration, the call-up of thousands more Guard and Reserve troops could raise the political stakes: Long deployments by part-time troops in a dangerous area might upset many communities and erode support for the administration's handling of post-war Iraq.
There are two multinational divisions in Iraq, totaling about 20,000 troops. One is made up of British soldiers; another comprises troops from several countries and is led by Polish commanders.
Pentagon officials had hoped to have at least 30,000 troops from other nations in Iraq by the end of the year - in addition to the 130,000 Americans.
Pentagon and State Department officials still hold out hope of attracting soldiers from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Turkey, South Korea and Russia to ease the burden on the U.S. forces. But even if those troops step forward, it would take months to organize and train them, officials said.
Lacking international help, the Pentagon said last week that roughly 4,000 soldiers from the National Guard's 81st Infantry Brigade in Washington state had been alerted for possible deployment.
Pentagon officials had said this summer that two Army Guard brigades would spend six months in Iraq and then be relieved by two other Guard units. Now, officials said, it appears that three brigades will be sent to Iraq in late winter or early spring and remain for a year.
Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau and a former Baltimore teacher, said U.S. commanders in Iraq decided to resort to extended deployments so that experienced soldiers would not be replaced so soon by untested newcomers.
Blum added that additional multinational troops, if sent, might help reduce the deployment time for the National Guard brigades.
"All three [brigades] probably will have to go, but [adding soldiers from other countries] may affect how long they stay," he said.
This week, leaders of North Carolina's 30th Infantry Brigade summoned their soldiers and announced that their deployment to Iraq would last a year - in addition to the three months for training and mobilization.
"They ain't happy at all," said one soldier with the brigade who requested anonymity, pointing out that they had expected a six-month duty.
But Spec. James Coleman, a medic with the brigade who was married last week, said that although there are some "mixed feelings" about the longer deployment, he is not among those complaining.
"It's a choice I took when I raised my right hand," said Coleman, who works at a Winn-Dixie supermarket warehouse in Raleigh. "[My wife is] not happy about it, but she understands."
Blum, the National Guard Bureau chief, said that on a recent visit to Iraq, he was encouraged by the enthusiasm of Guard troops, despite the harsh conditions and extended deployments.
"The grumbling I've heard is minimal," he said. "The troops understand we're a nation at war."
Efforts on protection
Meanwhile, Pentagon officials say they are increasing efforts to provide better protection for American soldiers in Iraq by sending additional armored Humvees and more body armor, notably Interceptor vests.
Keane, the Army's vice chief of staff, told House members that 1,700 armored Humvees are needed in Iraq. "We've got 800 there," he said. "To complete that requirement, it's going to take us a few more months."
The armored Humvee offers features not found in the conventional version, including bulletproof windows and protection from land mines. It can also stop rounds from an AK-47.
The $87 billion emergency spending request for Iraq and Afghanistan that President Bush has sent to Congress includes $177 million to buy 748 more armored Humvees. Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat and member of the Armed Services Committee, is proposing an amendment to add $190 million to buy 800 more.
And unlike more conventional flak vests, the Interceptor vests - which have ceramic plates in the front and rear - can stop a round from an AK-47. One Pentagon official said that as many as 20 percent of U.S. soldiers in Iraq do not have the Interceptor vests, which were first used in combat two years ago during the war in Afghanistan.
L. Paul Bremer III, the U.S. administrator in Iraq, told senators last week that all American soldiers in Iraq would have Interceptor vests by the end of next month.
Reed, who once served with the 82nd Airborne, said yesterday that soldiers on the front lines are generally equipped with Interceptor vests, while support troops wear the conventional flak vests.
But he faulted the Pentagon for "poor planning" on the level of insurgency and said troops needed better protection. More Interceptor vests and armored Humvees, he said, should have been sent earlier.
Army officials said there is no evidence that better protection could have prevented deaths in Iraq. But Reed said that some soldiers and their relatives he has heard from "feel it would have made a difference."
"You never know," he said. "It's a valid question."