BAGHDAD, Iraq—The Bush administration's decision to move thousands of U.S. soldiers into Baghdad to quell sectarian warfare before it explodes into outright civil war underscores a problem that's hindered the American effort to rebuild Iraq from the beginning: There aren't enough troops to do the job.
Many U.S. officials in Baghdad and in Washington privately concede the point. They say they've been forced to shuffle American units from one part of the country to another for at least two years because there haven't been enough soldiers and Marines to deal simultaneously with Sunni Muslim insurgents and Shiite militias; train Iraqi forces; and secure roads, power lines, border crossings and ammunition dumps.
Although military planners are still finalizing the details, as many as 4,000 additional U.S. soldiers are being sent to Baghdad, including two battalions of the Army's 172nd Stryker Brigade, four or five military police companies from northern Iraq and a field artillery battalion that's standing in reserve in Kuwait.
But when U.S. forces have cracked down in one place, Iraqi insurgents and foreign terrorists have popped up in another. Some towns have been pacified multiple times, only to return to chaos as soon as the Americans reduced troop numbers. In cities such as Baghdad, Kirkuk, Samarra and Ramadi, bloodshed ebbs and flows, but security is never a given.
The frustration of returning to quell violence in the same places multiple times has taken a toll on American morale, undermined Iraqi confidence in the U.S. and cast doubt on the Bush administration's hopes of beginning significant withdrawals of soldiers and Marines by the end of this election year. There are 130,000 U.S. service members in Iraq, down from 160,000 last December.
"This is exactly what happens when there aren't enough troops: You extend people and you deplete your theater reserve," said an American defense official in Iraq, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.
During embedded reporting trips beginning in the summer of 2003—which included time with troops from eight Army divisions, an armored cavalry regiment and several Marine units—a McClatchy reporter was told repeatedly that more manpower was needed.
American officials in Iraq and in the United States said the shortage stemmed from a number of factors, including:
_Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's belief that a small but agile, high-tech American force could topple Saddam's regime, in part because Iraqi exiles had assured the administration that American troops would be greeted as liberators. From the beginning, a number of U.S. officers said, senior White House and Pentagon officials said that post-invasion Iraq would require fewer than 200,000 troops.
_The decision early in the American occupation of Iraq, also encouraged by Iraqi exiles, to disband the Iraqi military. This deprived the U.S. of some potential Iraqi allies, and drove some Sunni soldiers and officers into the insurgency.
_Rumsfeld's reluctance to increase U.S. deployments in Iraq or the overall size of the Army despite the escalating violence. "It could be two divisions-plus just to secure Baghdad, and you're talking a 10-division Army," said a senior American military official who served in Iraq and is now in the United States.
_The inability or unwillingness of many newly trained Iraqi forces to take over security from the Americans or even to operate independently, which has dashed the administration's hopes that U.S. troops would stand down as the Iraqis stood up.
The lack of boots on the ground has forced American commanders in many areas to resort to large-scale raids and quick-hit cordons instead of "clear and hold" operations that would shut down an area, piece by piece, and establish security with a dense military presence.
"You can't do clear-and-hold with the force structure we have," the senior American military official said. "I'm almost of the view that you've got to bring more troops and they've got to stay longer, but no one wants to hear that."
Almost no high-ranking, active-duty U.S. officers are willing to discuss their concerns about troop levels publicly, for fear of being reprimanded or having their careers cut short. There's an unwritten understanding, they said, that the Bush administration doesn't want to hear about the need for more troops.
The top American military officer in Iraq, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., has said that such assertions are untrue. When ground commanders ask for more troops, according to Casey, they get them.
Casey "can get any forces anytime he wants to ask for them. General Casey has never been limited by the secretary of defense," said Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, the top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq. "To accomplish the missions that we are attempting to achieve, we do have the force structure that we need."
But the American defense official in Iraq said officers were discouraged from making such requests, and officers in Washington and at the military's Central Command confirmed that.
"They're not allowed to ask for more troops," the U.S. defense official in Iraq said. "If you say something you're gone, you're relieved, you're not in the Army anymore."
A number of senior military officials in the United States agreed. "There's an overall feeling that if you ask for more you're going to get hammered," one said.
In February 2003, then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki told a Senate committee that the force required to occupy Iraq would be "something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers."
Shinseki retired that June, ahead of schedule, amid denials from Rumsfeld and his subordinates that several hundred thousand troops were necessary. Many U.S. officers think that Shinseki was pushed out of his position, and take the episode as a warning not to request more soldiers and Marines.
There have been many examples of the implications of inadequate troop levels in Iraq:
_ In February 2004, the Army's 101st Airborne Division, with about 20,000 soldiers, was replaced in the northern city of Mosul by a brigade of about 5,000 men. Security in the region—particularly in Mosul, the country's third-largest city—deteriorated badly, and that November insurgents overran most of the police stations in and around Mosul.
Thousands of U.S. and Iraqi soldiers were moved to the city before it was brought back to nominal control.
"When you don't have enough soldiers, it's a hard thing to do," Capt. Steve Szilvassy, a 33-year-old from West Paterson, N.J., told a McClatchy reporter in Mosul in January 2005.
_During early and mid-2005, thousands of Iraqi and American soldiers had to be shifted to the violent northwestern town of Tal Afar before commanders there could surround and subdue the town.
From October 2004 to April 2005, about 400 soldiers had been patrolling some 10,000 square miles in the area. During the summer of 2005, about 3,500 U.S. soldiers and more than 5,000 Iraqi troops were moved there.
"There's simply not enough forces here," a high-ranking U.S. Army officer with knowledge of the Tal Afar region told a McClatchy reporter in June 2005. "There are not enough to do anything right. Everybody's got their finger in a dike."
_Just weeks before insurgents destroyed the dome of a Shiite shrine in Samarra in February—sparking sectarian violence that killed hundreds, if not thousands, of Iraqis—101st Airborne Division troops in the town told a McClatchy reporter that they didn't have enough soldiers to pacify the city. About 120 men from the 101st had replaced more than 400 soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Division.
"If they ever figure out that we don't have many guys here we'll be in trouble," said 1st Lt. Dennis Call, 31, of Albuquerque, N.M. "If we're out on patrol with just seven guys, like usual, and we take two casualties we'll get messed up."
_In May, the 2nd Brigade of the 1st Armored Division was called up to the western city of Ramadi, where insurgents had been killing local tribal leaders and other Iraqis who were cooperating with American forces.
The lack of progress in Ramadi and the surrounding al Anbar region had long been dispiriting to many who served there. "There's no way I can control this area with the men I have," Army Sgt. 1st Class Tom Coffey, 37, of Burlington, Vt., told a McClatchy reporter in Ramadi during August 2005.
Anthony Cordesman, an expert on military affairs, wrote last week that "the announcement that the U.S. is sending more troops into Baghdad is a grim warning of just how serious the situation in Iraq has become. The fact is that U.S. forces are now strained throughout the country in spite of efforts to create Iraqi military, security and police forces."
Cordesman continued: "Reinforcing Baghdad inevitably means weakening both U.S. and Iraqi capabilities somewhere else, and despite all of the talk that the insurgency focuses on Baghdad and four provinces, civil strife is steadily broadening in most of Iraq."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.