WASHINGTON—For the second time in two months, an Army unit in Iraq has had its tour of duty extended, the latest sign of the strain that more than three years of combat has put on the force.
About 4,000 troops with the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division based in Giessen, Germany, will have their tour of duty extended by 46 days, the military announced Monday. The unit was supposed to end its 12-month combat tour and return home in mid-January 2007, but will now begin its redeployment in late February.
The extension was implemented to ensure that soldiers with the 1st Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division will have at least 12 months at their home base of Fort Stewart, Ga., before they return to Iraq for the third time in January 2007.
Also, the 4th Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, based at Fort Hood, Texas, will deploy to Iraq 30 days earlier than planned, beginning their deployment in late October.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the changes were in order to maintain 15 combat brigades in Iraq. Last week, Gen. John Abizaid, chief of U.S. Central Command, said that the U.S. military would have to maintain as many as 147,000 troops in Iraq through next spring. U.S. military commanders had hoped to reduce the number of U.S. troops to less than 100,000 by the end of this year, but increasing violence between Shiite and Sunni Muslims has dashed those hopes.
"What these decisions reflect is the flexibility that the United States military has to adjust to a changing environment and a changing situation," Whitman said.
A congressional staffer briefed on the development on Monday said that the Army was moving up the deployment of the 1st Cavalry Division troops by a month so that the 172nd Stryker Brigade's deployment wouldn't be extended again. But an Army spokesman, Lt. Col. Carl Ey, said the two developments weren't necessarily connected.
About 3,500 troops with the Alaska-based 172nd Stryker Brigade were nearing the end of their 12-month combat tour in July when they were informed that they'd have to stay in Iraq for as long as four more months. The troops were moved from a base near Mosul in northern Iraq to Baghdad to help rein in sectarian violence.
This marks the third time that U.S. forces have been notified that they'd have to stay in Iraq beyond their original return date. The first time occurred in December 2004, when more than 12,000 soldiers and Marines were told that they would have stay for two additional months in order to bolster security for Iraq's first round of parliamentary elections. The second was the Stryker Brigade extension in July.
Last month, the Marine Corps announced that it would recall as many 2,500 inactive reservists back to service, the first time the Marines have recalled inactive reservists to duty since the 1991 Gulf War.
Army policy has been to give units that have served in Iraq a break of at least 12 months at their home base so that soldiers can rest, reunite with their families and have sufficient time to train before they deploy again. The Army at times has violated the policy.
Dan Goure, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute, a public policy research group in Arlington, Va., said the rotation policy isn't working as planned.
"A month or two here or there isn't that bad, but if you're going to hold them back so that somebody else can get their rest, then the system isn't working," he said.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.