EXTENDED DEPLOYMENT

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Army has plans to keep the current level of soldiers in Iraq through 2010, the top Army officer said Wednesday, a later date than any Bush administration or Pentagon officials have mentioned thus far.

The Army chief of staff, Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, cautioned against reading too much into the planning, saying it is easier to pull back forces than to prepare and deploy units at the last minute.

“This is not a prediction that things are going poorly or better,” Schoomaker told reporters. “It’s just that I have to have enough ammo in the magazine that I can continue to shoot as long as they want us to shoot.”

Currently there are 141,000 troops in Iraq, including 120,000 Army soldiers. Those soldiers are divided among 15 Army combat brigades plus other support units.

Schoomaker’s comments come less than four weeks before congressional elections, in which the unpopular war in Iraq and the Bush administration’s policies there are a major campaign issue.

Last month, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, Gen. John Abizaid, said the military would likely maintain or possibly even increase the current force levels through next spring.

In recent months the Army has shown signs of strain, as Pentagon officials have had to extend the Iraq deployments of two brigades in order to bolster security in Baghdad and allow units heading into the country to have at least one year at home before redeploying.

Schoomaker said he has received no new guidance from commanders in Iraq as to when the U.S. will be able to begin reducing the number of troops there. Last year officials had hoped to be down to about 100,000 by the end of this year, but escalating violence and sectarian tensions have prompted military leaders to increase forces.

He also said the Army will have to rely on the National Guard and Reserves to maintain the current level of deployments.

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