WASHINGTON - The Pentagon is boosting the total number of American troops in Iraq to 150,000, the highest number deployed since the war began in March last year.
Army Brig. Gen. David Rodriguez told reporters at the Pentagon yesterday that the increase from the current 138,000 troops would "mainly provide security" for Iraqi elections scheduled for the end of next month and "keep up the pressure on the insurgency since the Fallujah operation."
Rodriguez was referring to recent combat in the restive city that had become a haven for insurgents west of Baghdad.
Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, requested the additional troops, which were approved by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, officials said.
Rodriguez, the operations director for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said officials plan to reduce the number of U.S. forces back to 138,000 by the end of March, depending on the security situation.
But hopes for reducing troops have been continually dashed over the past year. When Baghdad fell in April last year, some Pentagon officials privately estimated that 30,000 U.S. troops would be on the ground by the end of that summer, but the ever-growing insurgency disrupted those plans.
About 120,000 U.S. troops patrolled Iraq a year ago.
The number grew to 134,000 in April and 138,000 in May, which was achieved partly by extending tours of U.S. ground forces for the first time.
Still, in the spring of this year, Pentagon officials had held out hope that they could decrease troop levels to 110,000.
Higher than estimate
With yesterday's announcement, 10,400 soldiers and Marines will receive extensions for as long as two months, while 1,500 soldiers from the Army's 82nd Airborne Division will be sent to Iraq in the coming weeks for about 120 days to support security efforts during the election period, officials said.
The addition of U.S. troops to provide security for the elections was expected, but the numbers unveiled yesterday were far higher than officials had been estimating.
Just two weeks ago, Lt. Gen. Lance L. Smith, deputy commander of the U.S. Central Command, said he expected that a "brigade's worth" of troops - about 5,000 - would probably be kept in Iraq during the election period.
By the end of this month or into next month, the 150,000-troop level in Iraq would be "the highest point since the invasion," Rodriguez said.
He said about 148,000 U.S. troops were in Iraq in May last year, when Bush triumphantly landed on the carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and declared an end to major combat.
Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat and a former officer in the 82nd Airborne, said the extensions and additional troops show that the Pentagon is finally confronting "the reality of Iraq."
"You need more troops, well-trained troops," Reed said in an interview, estimating that as many as 300,000 American troops are necessary to provide security in Iraq.
That figure echoes the estimate of the former Army chief of staff, Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, who in the weeks before the war told Congress it would take "several hundred thousand" troops for post-war security operations in Iraq.
'Wildly off the mark'
Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul D. Wolfowitz, publicly challenged that number, with Wolfowitz terming Shinseki's estimate "wildly off the mark."
Officials and defense analysts are expecting the Iraqi security forces, which now number about 115,000, to pick up a greater share of the peacekeeping effort and enable the U.S. to cut back its forces.
There are also 20,000 to 24,000 other foreign troops in Iraq deployed by 28 countries as part of the U.S.-led coalition,
The track record of Iraq has been spotty, with some troops fleeing in the face of danger and some units penetrated by insurgents.
Reed estimated it would take two more years to train battalion-sized units of about 500 to 600 soldiers that would be able to operate independently.
Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have told Congress that about 145,000 Iraqi forces would be trained and equipped by the January election.
But yesterday Rodriguez placed the number at 125,000.
"The Iraqi troops continue to make progress," said Rodriguez.
However, he conceded that they were still not able or not numerous enough to handle current security needs.
The troops whose extensions were announced yesterday include 4,400 soldiers from the 2nd Brigade of the 25th Infantry Division, which is based in Hawaii and was slated to return next month after a year in Iraq. Now they would return home in March.
An additional 3,500 soldiers from the 2nd Brigade of the 1st Cavalry Division of Fort Hood, Texas, will be extended for two months, until March, when they will have served 14 months in Iraq.
It would be the second extension for the unit.
Also, about 2,300 Marines from the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit - whose troops are from Okinawa, Hawaii and California - would return in February or March instead of next month.
Finally, 160 soldiers from the Germany-based 66th Transportation Company, which is now in Kuwait, would return in March.
The additional troops are being sent from Fort Bragg, N.C. The 1,500 soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division are scheduled to stay in Baghdad for 120 days, officials said.
Rodriguez said there were no plans to accelerate the deployment of elements of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, based at Fort Carson, Colo., or the Georgia-based 3rd Infantry Division, which spearheaded the drive on Baghdad during the war. Both units are slated to return to Iraq in the next two months for a yearlong deployment.
Asked yesterday how he expected the extensions to affect morale, Rodriguez said, "The soldiers and their family members understand the importance of this."
Two other officers from the Joint Chiefs who appeared yesterday with Rodriguez, Army Maj. Gen. Fred D. Robinson and Marine Brig. Gen. Robert B. Neller, said recruiting and retention of active-duty soldiers and Marines have not been affected by the long and sometimes repeated Iraq deployments.
Steps are being taken to temporarily boost the 480,000-soldier Army by 30,000 soldiers over the next several years.
But Michael O'Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution, said the Army should increase that temporary goal by 50,000 soldiers in an effort to provide enough forces for continuing missions.
He warned that by stretching forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army is taking an "unnecessary gamble."