WASHINGTON -- About 21,000 American soldiers in Iraq who were to return this month to their home bases in Louisiana and Germany will have their tours extended at least three months to help combat the surge in anti-occupation violence, defense officials said Wednesday.
The decision, which has not been announced publicly, breaks the Army's promise to soldiers and their families that assignments in Iraq would be limited to 12 months. The affected soldiers already have been in Iraq for a year.
In addition, about 1,000 soldiers in transportation units based in Kuwait will be extended beyond one year, a senior defense official said. Most of them are in the National Guard or Reserve. They are deemed critical to re-supplying the troops based in Iraq.
Welcome-home ceremonies at Fort Polk, La., scheduled for this month, have been canceled. In Baumholder, Germany, some soldiers' families have stopped marking the days off the calendar.
The top U.S. commander for the Middle East, Gen. John Abizaid, decided that the increase in violence was so threatening that he needed to have the extra firepower, officials say.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was fine-tuning the new plan Wednesday; his spokesmen declined to discuss details. They said it was possible that Rumsfeld would make it public today.
Of the estimated 21,000 soldiers affected by the extension in Iraq, about 18,000 are in the 1st Armored Division. About 2,800 are with the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment.
The advantage of keeping soldiers of the 1st Armored and the 2nd Armored Cavalry in Iraq for an extra three months -- rather than bringing in an equivalent number from elsewhere -- is that these soldiers have unmatched combat experience in Iraq.
The Army is so stretched by its commitments in Iraq, Af-ghanistan, the Balkans and elsewhere that it has few, if any, forces immediately available to substitute in Iraq for the 1st Armored or 2nd Armored Cavalry.
Also, these units have been heavily involved in one of the most important U.S. military missions there: training thousands of Iraqi security forces.
Those Iraqi army and civil defense corps members are central to the Pentagon's plan for eventually turning over military control to the Iraqis and pulling out U.S. troops.
Abizaid had planned, as part of the current rotation of fresh forces into Iraq, to reduce the U.S. troop presence from about 135,000 to about 115,000.
But the surge this month in anti-occupation violence in restive areas in and around Baghdad and in the south has forced Abizaid to change course. He indicated on Tuesday that he needed more forces than originally planned. He would not tell reporters exactly how many or where he would get them.
Fort Polk, the Army base in Louisiana that is home to the 2nd Armored Cavalry, issued a news release April 9 quoting the regiment's commander, Col. Bradley W. May, as saying "elements" of his unit "will remain in theater longer than initially announced."
He did not say how many soldiers were affected. A senior defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Wednesday it would be about 2,800.
The 2nd Squadron of the 2nd Armored Cavalry recently returned home to Louisiana, but the rest of the unit will remain in Iraq. May did not say how much longer his unit would remain in Iraq. Other defense officials said family members were told the soldiers probably would be back at Fort Polk in about four months. They likely will be in Iraq an extra three months, then take a month to redeploy.
These are not the first units to be extended in Iraq beyond one year. A brigade of the 82nd Airborne was extended by about three months
Rumsfeld has said he would grant any request that Abizaid made to adjust the level of his combat power. President Bush said at a news conference Tuesday night that he was ready to provide as many extra troops as U.S. commanders on the ground say they need.
The 1st Armored and the 2nd Armored Cavalry are part of a contingent of about 135,000 U.S. soldiers who were being replaced this spring by a fresh group of soldiers and Marines. The 101st Airborne, the 4th Infantry Division and other units recently left Iraq, with the arrival of the 1st Infantry Division, a Stryker Brigade, the 1st Cavalry Division and the 1st Marine Division.
While surely disappointed that his troops must remain longer than planned, the commander of the 2nd Armored Cavalry has told them they should be ready to help finish the job.
"We are being called to end the fight against Muqtada Sadr's Mahdi Army and we will," May said, referring to the militia of the radical Shiite cleric who has incited violence against the U.S.-led occupation forces in southern cities including Najaf.
Still, the change of plans is bound to take a psychological toll. In a letter to his troops in January, May assured them that their time in Iraq was "fast approaching its conclusion."
In Baumholder, Germany, Matilda Adams and her two small children have stopped crossing the days off the calendar until the return of husband Sgt. Tory Adams, who had been due back this week.
"I was counting down and that hurt," said Adams, of Danville, Va. "I'm trying to go about it differently for the extension."