WASHINGTON - U.S. troops might be facing rare yearlong tours of duty in Iraq to deal with what is now being called a well-coordinated guerrilla campaign, the commander of American forces in the Persian Gulf region said yesterday.
Gen. John Abizaid, the newly appointed head of U.S. Central Command, told reporters at the Pentagon that some soldiers should expect deployments beyond the usual six months of peacekeeping duty that have characterized Army missions in the Balkans and Afghanistan.
"Yearlong deployments are possible for certain units," said Abizaid, who took over the command this month from Gen. Tommy R. Franks, who led the Iraq invasion. "We need to probably say to our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, 'Here is the maximum extent of your deployment.'"
Pentagon officials are deciding which units will relieve the war-weary U.S. soldiers in Iraq. Announcements might be made in the next week. Replacement forces are expected to include Army National Guard combat troops, the active-duty Army's new high-tech armored brigade at Fort Lewis, Wash., as well as Marine units, said a Pentagon official who briefed a small group of reporters on the condition that he not be identified.
"It's best to tell them a year," said the official. A yearlong tour of duty in a combat theater is unusual, and some military officers said it was akin to Vietnam War deployments. But Abizaid noted that the 1st Armored Division served in Bosnia for a year in the 1990s.
Abizaid said U.S. and coalition forces face a "classical guerrilla-type campaign," the first time that description has been used by a high-ranking official. Before yesterday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and other officials said there was no coordination, widespread attacks or support from the population that typifies guerrilla operations.
Rumsfeld chided reporters recently for using the terms "guerrilla warfare" or "quagmire," which he implied conjure up images of Vietnam. "There are so many cartoons where people, press people, are saying, 'Is it Vietnam yet?' hoping it is and wondering if it is," Rumsfeld said. "And it isn't. It's a different time. It's a different era. It's a different place."
About the same time, the commander of the 4th Infantry Division in Iraq strongly rejected the suggestion that U.S. troops were facing guerrilla warfare. "It's not close to guerrilla warfare because it's not coordinated, it's not organized and it's not led," said Maj. Gen. Ray Odierno.
But Abizaid yesterday assessed the situation differently. "I think that describing it as guerrilla tactics being against us is, you know, a proper thing," he said.
He said the Iraqi fighters are organized into cells of six to eight people, attacking with rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns. "They are receiving financial help from probably regional-level leaders," he said, adding that the activity is in pockets from Baghdad to Ramadi, a city west of the capital, and in the northern cities of Tikrit and Mosul.
While he said the attacks are not escalating, the guerrilla campaign is becoming more organized.
"And it is learning," he said. "It is adapting. It is adapting to our tactics, techniques and procedures, and we've got to adapt to their tactics, techniques and procedures."
"It's low-intensity conflict, in our doctrinal terms, but it's war, however you describe it," he said.
Abizaid said the resistance is made up mainly of remnants of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, the Iraqi intelligence service and Hussein's elite Special Republican Guard. There are also elements of terrorist groups, perhaps al-Qaida or al-Qaida allies, along with Ansar al-Islam, a terrorist group that operated in the Kurdish-controlled area of northern Iraq, he said.
The main problem, he said, is the midlevel Baathist leaders. "If I could do one thing as a commander right now, I would focus my intelligence like a laser on where the problem is, which is midlevel Baathist leaders," he said. "And we're trying to do that."
The general said that he expects to maintain the current force level of 148,000 U.S. troops in Iraq for an unspecified period. If necessary, he said, he would ask for more troops. There are another 13,000 coalition troops in Iraq, mostly British. Pentagon planners say they expect that number to rise to 30,000 by the fall.
But some countries, such as India and France, have balked at sending troops. The Pentagon official who briefed reporters said some of those promised troops are either not combat-ready or ill-equipped. For example, one Hungarian military truck company has pledged 133 drivers - but no trucks.
Abizaid also said the longest-serving Army unit in Iraq, the 3rd Infantry Division from Fort Stewart, Ga., will be going home in September, a year after a third of the 16,500-soldier division arrived in the region.
There has been confusion about the return dates for the remaining two brigades, with Rumsfeld telling Congress last week that one was expected home next month and the second in September. The division's third brigade is on its way home.
But this week the division's commander told the soldiers' spouses that deployment of the two brigades still in Iraq had been extended, and it was unclear how long they would stay.
Abizaid sounded definitive yesterday. "We will bring those troops home by September, certainly out of Iraq by September, and they'll be moving towards home in September," the general said. "I think it's most likely that the 3rd Infantry Division's two brigades that are remaining in the country right now will be replaced by [other] Army units in the near future."
Abizaid said he would return to Baghdad shortly and confer with his division commanders about troop rotations. "And we will insist upon ensuring that every soldier, sailor, airman and Marine know what their end dates are," he said. "It's very important. We need to do it, and we should be able to do it."
More than half the Army's 10 divisions are in Iraq, and military planners are being forced to dip into National Guard units as a source of peacekeepers.
Military officials also expect to use Marine Corps units for the peacekeeping and occupation force, a duty that has rarely fallen to the Marines. They are traditionally a kick-down-the-door force that turns over occupation duty to the larger and more heavily equipped Army when a battle or a war ends.
A Pentagon official said it is "highly probable" that one or two of the Army National Guard's 15 combat brigades - each brigade has about 4,500 soldiers and maintains a higher state of training than other Guard units - would be tapped for Iraq duty, although probably not until early next year.
Members of those units would receive a month to notify employers and settle personal business before heading off for a month or more of training. As a result of the training, those Guard deployments could exceed a year.
The Army's new rapid-response brigade based at Fort Lewis, with a high-tech 20-ton armored vehicle known as the Stryker, is expected to be sent into Iraq, most likely in the fall, said the official. It would mark the first mission for the brigade, which was certified combat-ready in May.
There are 9,000 Marines in Iraq, part of 21,000 active-duty and Reserve Marines in the Persian Gulf region. Nearly all are from the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, based at Camp Pendleton, Calif., which arrived in the region in February.
The Pentagon has announced that the expeditionary force will be going home in September, but military planners could extend the current deployment or order other active-duty or Marine reservists to occupation duty, officials said.