Extending Iraq buildup would be tough for Army

Monday, August 20, 2007
In this image released by the U.S. Army, soldiers of 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, out of Fort Lewis, Washington, pull security while on patrol in Baqouba, Iraq, 60 kilometers (35 miles) northeast of Baghdad Thursday, March 15, 2007. The Regiment was moved to Diyala province to reinforce the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, to try to quell ongoing violence in the area. (AP Photo/ Sgt. Armando Monroig, US Army)

WASHINGTON -- Sapped by nearly six years of war, the Army has nearly exhausted its fighting force and its options if the Bush administration decides to extend the Iraq buildup beyond next spring.

The Army's 38 available combat units are deployed, just returning home or already tapped to go to Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere, leaving no fresh troops to replace five extra brigades that President Bush sent to Baghdad this year, according to interviews and military documents reviewed by The Associated Press.

That presents the Pentagon with several painful choices if the United States wants to maintain higher troop levels beyond the spring of 2008:

* Using National Guard units on an accelerated schedule.

* Breaking the military's pledge to keep soldiers in Iraq for no longer than 15 months.

Members of the U.S. Army listened as gunfire erupted Feb. 15 during a joint operation with the Iraqi army in the town of Buhriz, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad. Although the spotlight is on Baghdad, fiercer battles are raging just 35 miles to the north, where U.S. and Iraqi forces are fighting for control of a strategic province between the capital and the Iranian border. (Associated Press file)

* Breaching a commitment to give soldiers a full year at home before sending them back to war.

For a war-fatigued nation and a Congress bent on bringing troops home, none of those is desirable.

In Iraq, there are 18 Army brigades, each with about 3,500 soldiers. At least 13 more brigades are scheduled to rotate in. Two others are in Afghanistan and two additional ones are set to rotate in there. Also, several other brigades either are set for a future deployment or are scattered around the globe.

The few units that are not at war, in transformation or in their 12-months home time already are penciled in for deployments later in 2008 or into 2009. Shifting them would create problems in the long-term schedule.

Most Army brigades have completed two or three tours in Iraq or Afghanistan; some assignments have lasted as long as 15 months. The 2nd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division, has done four tours.

Soldiers of the Army's 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division, rest as they have arrive to a US military Base Warhorse in Baqouba, Iraq, 60 kilometers (35 miles) north east of Baghdad, Tuesday, March 13, 2007. More than 700 additional U.S. troops arrived in Iraq's increasingly volatile Diyala province on Tuesday, to try to quell burgeoning violence just northeast of Baghdad during a security crackdown there. (AP Photo/Lauren Frayer)

Two Marine regiments -- each roughly the same size as an Army brigade -- are also in Iraq, bringing the total number of brigades in the country to 20.

When asked what units will fill the void in the coming spring if any need to be replaced, officials give a grim shake of the head, shrug of the shoulders or a palms-up, empty-handed gesture.

"The demand for our forces exceeds the sustainable supply," Army chief of staff Gen. George Casey said last week. "Right now we have in place deployment and mobilization policies that allow us to meet the current demands. If the demands don't go down over time, it will become increasingly difficult for us to provide the trained and ready forces" for other missions.

Casey said he would not be comfortable extending troops beyond their 15-month deployments. But other military officials acknowledge privately that option is on the table.

There are 162,000 U.S. troops in Iraq now, the highest level since the war began in 2003. That figure is expected to hit 171,000 this fall as fresh troops rotate in.

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