WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon will send four National Guard brigades to Iraq and may extend the tours of five active-duty Army brigades by as much as four months as it strains to find troops to sustain the buildup in Baghdad through the end of the year.
The National Guard deployments - 13,000 soldiers based in Arkansas, Indiana, Oklahoma and Ohio - mark the first time since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that entire brigades are being called up for second combat tours. The four brigades previously served in Iraq, Afghanistan or the Balkans in 2004 or 2005.
"Obviously everyone is going to be a little apprehensive about going back to Iraq," Col. Kendall Penn, commander of the 39th Infantry Brigade Combat Team in Arkansas, saidyesterday. "However, this is a mission that the unit has trained for. ... It is a mission that we are capable of doing."
The deployments come at a politically difficult time for President Bush, who is fighting efforts in the Democratic-controlled Congress to force him to withdraw U.S. combat forces from the 4-year-old war in Iraq.
The Army said the Guard alert, sent over the weekend, was not related to the current buildup. The action was taken in part to limit the tours of soldiers now in Iraq to the customary year-long deployment.
The Guard units will not be sent to Iraq until December, however, so the military has to find additional units to meet the administration's goal of deploying 20 combat brigades in Iraq through the end of the year.
To keep that increase through the fall, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates is considering four-month extensions for five brigades, or about 15,000 soldiers, according to a defense official who requested anonymity because Gates has not yet approved the plan.
Under rotations already announced by the Pentagon, the troop buildup would last through August but then begin to drop down to 15 brigades as units begin to return home. The Army has already been forced to send two combat brigades back to Iraq without their normal one-year respites at their home bases to sustain the buildup.
The deployments could inflame the debate in Congress as it works on a bill that would fund the war through the end of the year, but would also force the president to begin withdrawing troops.
Peter Spiegel and Richard Simon write for the Los Angeles Times.