General says Iraqis will handle security for fall elections
WASHINGTON -- U.S.-trained Iraqi police and military forces will handle most of the security duties during nationwide voting in October and December, so the American military is likely to send only a few thousand extra troops to Iraq for that mission, a senior U.S. commander said Friday.
Some officials had indicated recently that up to 20,000 extra U.S. troops might be needed during the voting.
Lt. Gen. John Vines, commander of Multi-National Corps-Iraq, said he expected to need no more than 2,000 extra troops because there are thousands more Iraqi troops available than during last January's election.
The Pentagon says Iraq has about 180,000 security forces now, compared to about 130,000 last January.
Vines' comment comes at a juncture in the Iraq conflict that has seen waning public patience for U.S. casualties and increased political pressure on President Bush to show progress in stabilizing Iraq.
It also comes amid added strains on the U.S. military from hurricane rescue and relief efforts in Louisiana and Mississippi.
The United States has about 140,900 troops in Iraq now, according to Lt. Col. Barry Venable, a Pentagon spokesman. The number fluctuates by a thousand or so daily because a large rotation of forces is under way.
"There will be very little overall change in the numbers," Vines said, noting that an extra 1,500 troops from the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C., already have been tapped for temporary duty in Iraq.
"The number 140,000 is probably about right" for the election period, he added.
Vines, who also is commander of the 18th Airborne Corps, based at Fort Bragg, spoke from Baghdad in a video-teleconference with reporters at the Pentagon.
U.S. officials have said they expect the insurgents in Iraq to escalate attacks in hopes of stopping a national referendum on the draft constitution Oct. 15 and the election of a new government, based on the constitution, in December.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said Friday that recommendations on adjustments to U.S. troop levels in Iraq would be made by Vines' boss, Gen. George Casey, who is the top overall commander in the country, and by Gen. John Abizaid, the commander of U.S. Central Command.
It had been thought that if a large number of extra U.S. troops were needed in Iraq this fall the increase would be accomplished mainly by extending the tours of units nearing the completion of their one-year stints and possibly bringing some units in earlier than originally scheduled. Vines, however, said there would be little of that.
"There are a few units, very few units that we probably will have to adjust their time here in country by just a few days -- in no case more than a week to 10 days," Vines said. "And many of them will get home exactly on schedule."
Vines also said U.S. troops in Iraq whose family members were injured or killed by Hurricane Katrina may be allowed to go home, but those who have no confirmed casualties among family members will have to stay in Iraq.
"As much as we'd like to give everyone who's affected the opportunity to go home and deal with that situation, we won't be, in all cases, able to do that," he said, adding that some who are already scheduled to finish their Iraq duty may be allowed to go a week or so early.
Vines said that to allow soldiers from Mississippi and Louisiana to return home early would put their fellow soldiers in Iraq at greater risk.
"The problem is, the security mission goes on here and if we take some out, those that are left are at some risk -- it increases their risk," Vines said. "Unfortunately, we're not able at this time -- unless someone is known to have a family member wounded or injured or killed -- we're not in a position to make those adjustments."