WASHINGTON -- Top U.S. military officials, expecting President Bush to order an increase in the size of the force in Iraq, have concluded that such a buildup would require them to reverse Pentagon policy and send the Army's National Guard and reserve units on lengthy second tours in Iraq, defense officials said yesterday.
Under Pentagon policy, Guard and reserve units have been limited to 24 months of mobilization for the Iraq war. Under that rule, most reserve units that have been sent to Iraq are ineligible to return, but the Joint Chiefs of Staff have concluded that a significant buildup would require the Pentagon to overturn the policy and send Guard and reserve units for additional yearlong tours.
Such an order would probably be controversial among governors, who share authority over the Guard, and could heighten concerns in Congress over the war and Bush's plans for a troop increase.
In addition, National Guard leaders are skeptical of calls for additional combat tours, which they fear could hurt recruiting and retention.
"If you have to sustain a surge long term, you have to use the Guard and reserve," said a Pentagon official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the president has not unveiled his strategy shift.
Bush, who is to announce his new policy tomorrow night, met yesterday with about a dozen Republican senators to discuss the plan. After the meeting, Sen. Gordon H. Smith, an Oregon Republican, said Bush appeared to be planning to add 20,000 troops.
"It was clear to me that a decision was made for a surge of 20,000 additional troops," Smith said. "He did not affirm that that would be the number, but he said roughly ... that amount. I understood it as a hypothetical."
Any boost in combat forces would require an increase in reserve support units, such as engineering and intelligence teams. But because of training requirements, National Guard infantry forces are unlikely to be used as part of any initial increase. They would be needed later in the year to sustain the higher troop level.
Defense officials say it will be difficult to assemble the additional 20,000 soldiers and Marines quickly. Although there is a reserve brigade in Kuwait, building up to a full expansion might take until late March or April, an Army official said.
The expected increase is likely to rely heavily on speeding up the deployments of units scheduled to go to Iraq in the summer while extending the tours of Marine and Army units in Iraq, which had been due to return home in the late spring and summer.
It is unclear which National Guard units would be chosen as part of a troop buildup, but officials said the first Guard units sent into Iraq would be considered for the first return tours.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, a member of the Joint Chiefs, has complained publicly that the policy against involuntary second tours has forced the National Guard to put together units from dozens of states, rather than sending whole battalions or brigades that have worked and trained together.
Julian E. Barnes writes for the Los Angeles Times.