WASHINGTON – The Army is stretched so thin by the war in Iraq that it is again extending the combat tours of thousands of soldiers beyond the promised 12 months, the second such move since August.
Soldiers of the 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division had been expecting to return to their home base in Germany in early January. Instead, they will stay in Iraq at least until late February, several officials said Monday. The soldiers are operating in western Anbar province, one of the most violent and dangerous parts of Iraq.
“The Army is coming to the end of its rope in Iraq,” said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute, a private research group. “It simply does not have enough active-duty military personnel to sustain the current level of effort.”
Of the 142,000 U.S. troops now in Iraq, nearly 120,000 are Army soldiers.
The tour extension affects between 3,500 and 4,000 soldiers in the brigade, officials said. They spoke only on condition of anonymity because the Pentagon had yet to make an announcement.
Asked about the matter at a news conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld declined to confirm the extension but said that “from time to time there may be” units required to stay in Iraq longer than scheduled. He alluded to a pending announcement.
Last month, the Army’s 172nd Stryker Brigade was ordered to extend its tour in Iraq by up to four months. Some members of that unit had already returned to the brigade’s home base in Alaska when the decision was announced. About 300 soldier had to go back to Iraq, drawing public complaints from some families.
Rumsfeld also appeared to hint at other adjustments to the troop rotation plan.
“We’re also bringing some other units in earlier, which is another way of dealing with that issue” of how to keep a sufficient number of troops in Iraq with a limited number of combat brigades available, Rumsfeld said.
The extension reflects a dilemma for Army leaders: either keep one group of soldiers in Iraq longer than promised, or replace them with another group that has not yet had its minimum 12 months at home between combat tours. Either choice risks upsetting some soldiers and their families. And the fact that the choice cannot be avoided is a sign that troop rotations in Iraq are squeezing the Army from several directions.