BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The commander of coalition ground forces in Iraq said Thursday he may soon send more troops to areas where U.S. forces have been attacked. But officers and senior enlisted men in the unit insist their equipment isn't battle ready, and say soldiers' lives may be needlessly put at risk.
Lt. Gen. David McKiernan told reporters the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, which had been planning to return to the United States in June, would stay in Iraq until commanders decide they are no longer needed. Some 140,000 U.S. troops now occupy the country.
U.S. forces have been targeted with everything from land mines to rocket-propelled grenades as they try to enforce a post-invasion peace. They also have come under pressure, both in Iraq and overseas, to make the country's lawless cities safe again.
With recent deadly attacks against U.S. soldiers, McKiernan said, there were no immediate plans to return the unit to its headquarters at Fort Stewart, Ga.
"Now that the 1st Armored Division has assumed the responsibility for the Baghdad area, I'm working with the V Corps commander on different options," McKiernan said. The V Corps is an umbrella operation that coordinates American forces in Iraq.
"If we need to apply some of the combat power of the 3rd Infantry Division elsewhere in Iraq, we will certainly not hesitate to do that," McKiernan said.
He said one area where more troops may be sent is Fallujah, a one-time stronghold for Saddam Hussein and his Baath Party 30 miles west of Baghdad. Two U.S. soldiers were killed and nine wounded there Sunday night during a confrontation at a U.S. checkpoint.
On Thursday, an American soldier was killed when his convoy came under fire from a rocket-propelled grenade on a supply route through Iraq, bringing to nine the number of U.S. soldiers killed in the country this week.
Senior leaders and logistics experts in the 3rd Infantry say most of the division is not ready for combat. They complain that they have received almost no spare parts to repair damaged tanks and armored personnel carriers -- what the military calls Class IX supplies -- since they left Kuwait on March 22.
"He is going to get U.S. soldiers needlessly killed if he expects us to go into battle," a senior noncommissioned officer in the 3rd Infantry said of McKiernan. He spoke on condition he not be named for fear of retribution.
The 3rd Infantry's supply line was a constant problem during initial fighting for control of Iraq. After the fall of Baghdad, senior officers determined the division would be leaving within weeks -- and its vehicles would be taken out of service -- so they never filled orders for parts.
One battalion's operations officer said he has more than 2,600 parts on order and that all the tanks in his unit require extensive repairs. A commander said his Bradley Fighting Vehicles all had two-page lists of parts that were ordered but never delivered.
"None of my Bradleys are fully mission capable," said Capt. Chris Carter, an infantry company commander.
Maintenance personnel report that the treads that propel tanks forward are worn, and the vehicles' suspensions are badly damaged. That means the tanks could be easily immobilized in battle and could not move well under fire.
One brigade-level officer wrote a four-page letter to the division commander detailing why his unit was not ready for combat operations, a senior officer said on condition of anonymity.
Asked about spare parts for the division, McKiernan insisted there were plenty of supplies available.
"I wouldn't say they are lacking repair parts. I would say a lot of them were shot up during the campaign, a lot of them have had to have maintenance performed on them," he said. "Those soldiers, if they are asked to go and occupy another piece of ground in Iraq and conduct combat operations, they will be all over it."
Officers in the division said they will follow any orders, but all expressed concern about the possible cost.
McKiernan emphasized to journalists that combat operations were still under way and that recent attacks were orchestrated by local Baath Party groups.
"The war has not ended," McKiernan said. "Decisive combat operations against military formations has ended, but these contacts we're having right now are in a combat zone, and it is war, and they are members of the regime that must be removed."