U.S.'s Iraq force at all-time high

The Baltimore Sun

BAGHDAD -- The size of the U.S. force in Iraq has reached nearly 162,000 troops, the largest American presence at any point during the 52 months of the war, Pentagon officials said yesterday.

The increase is the result of the regular replacement of forces and not an additional buildup of U.S. troops, said Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman.

"There is no change to the level of effort and the combat power that we are projecting into Iraq," Whitman said.

Officials reported yesterday that five more troops had been killed in Iraq, bringing the total this month to 21 and putting the military on pace to see more than 100 deaths in August. Three of the soldiers were killed Saturday when their convoy hit a roadside bomb south of Baghdad. Two others died Sunday in Baghdad from mortars or rockets.

The British military also announced that a British soldier was shot and killed Monday in the southern city of Basra.

Pentagon officials repeatedly have predicted that militants will try to step up the pace of their attacks in advance of Gen. David H. Petraeus' September progress report to Congress.

Although the number of Americans killed in July fell to 80, in the three previous months the higher number of troops in Iraq led to increased U.S. casualties, with more than 100 troops dying each month.

The U.S. military has reported 3,679 deaths since the war began in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

Since the arrival in June of all of the additional U.S. forces ordered to Iraq as part of President Bush's troop buildup, the number of service members in Iraq has been about 157,000. Whitman said the size of the force likely would return to that level in a few weeks and then spike again as brigades rotate in and out of Iraq.

The military typically has units overlap in Iraq so the outgoing unit can help the new force.

The previous high for U.S. forces was during January 2005, when the force level hit 161,000. At the time, U.S. generals in Baghdad had arranged for a brief increase in forces to coincide with Iraqi elections.

Although those elections were conducted successfully, the political system they created has largely led to deadlock in Baghdad.

That paralysis continued this week with the boycott by a secular political bloc lead by Ayad Allawi, the former prime minister ousted in the January 2005 vote. Ministers with Allawi's secular bloc called on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki yesterday to remove what they labeled sectarian bias from his government.

The boycott announced Monday by four ministers with Allawi's Iraqi National Accord follows last week's withdrawal of six Sunni nationalists. With the boycott, 17 of the 37 members of al-Maliki's Cabinet have left in protest.

Although Allawi has been accused of trying to undermine the al-Maliki government, party members said yesterday they were not trying to win more power or weaken the prime minister.

The boycotting ministers will continue to run their ministries but no longer will attend Cabinet meetings or cooperate with al-Maliki, said Iyad Jamalideen, a Shiite Muslim cleric and member of parliament who belongs to the Iraqi National Accord.

Jamalideen said the boycott was sparked by what he called al-Maliki's unwillingness to consider a list of demands submitted by the bloc in February. Those demands included reconsidering the country's anti-terrorism law, removing militia elements from the security forces, pardoning many former members of Saddam Hussein's Baathist Party regime and suspending a law that bars Baath Party members from government jobs and pensions.

It was unclear yesterday how al-Maliki plans to handle the boycott, but his advisers have said he intends to replace the Sunni ministers soon.

Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Julian E. Barnes write for the Los Angeles Times.

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