WASHINGTON—U.S. Army soldiers deployed to Iraq will serve at least 15 months there instead of 12, the Defense Department announced Wednesday.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the new rotation schedule, which also will affect soldiers sent to Afghanistan, would allow the Pentagon to guarantee units at least 12 months at home between war zone rotations. Without the change, five brigades would have had to return to combat after less than a year at home, he said.
Democrats charged that lengthening the time troops will be expected to stay in Iraq is further proof that the so-called "surge" that President Bush announced in January is really a long-term increase in troop strength likely to last well into next year. They also called it an acknowledgment that the Iraq war has seriously overstretched the U.S. military's largest branch.
"The decision to extend the tours of U.S. service members by three months is an urgent warning that the administration's Iraq policy cannot be sustained without doing terrible long-term damage to our military," Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., said in a statement. "We don't have to guess at the impact on readiness, recruitment and retention."
The new schedule is effective immediately for all Army troops serving in, or getting ready to deploy to, Iraq or Afghanistan. It doesn't affect the Marine Corps, whose members are rotated into the war zone for seven months, with six months between tours, or Army National Guard and Reserve units, whose tours will still last 12 months.
On U.S. Army bases, commanders and families alike scrambled to determine the impact of the new deployment schedule.
At Fort Drum, N.Y., for example, commanders of the Louisiana-based 1st Brigade, 10th Mountain Division, training for deployment to Iraq, said they didn't know now when the unit would be leaving.
"Everyone is on the phone trying to find out," said Ben Abel, a base spokesman.
Another Fort Drum unit, the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, which deployed in August, appeared likely now to remain in Iraq until November. And members of another unit, the 3rd Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment, which just left for Iraq, likely would not learn about their extended tour until they arrived, Abel said.
Gates said units that had already been extended, like Fort Drum's 3rd Brigade Combat Division, would not be extended again. That unit learned in January that it would not return until June, Abel said.
Military blogs carried expressions of frustration. One wife who signed herself Panquera wrote on CinCHouse.com, "I am absolutely sick about this. ... We've already done a 15-month deployment, WHY, WHY do we have to go through this nightmare again!"
Gates conceded that "our forces are stretched, there's no question about that," but said that it was better for the troops to have firm timetables.
Marine Gen. Pete Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the extension was part of a U.S. strategy to give Iraqi leaders more time to find a political solution to violence there.
"What we are doing as a U.S. armed force with our coalition partners is buying time for the Iraqi government to provide the good governance and the economic activity that's required," Pace said.
Andrew Krepinevich, director for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis, a Washington think tank, said the extension is likely to heighten debate in Congress over whether to set a timetable for U.S. troops to begin withdrawing.
The announcement will cause Congress to ask: "How long do we have to wait for (the Iraqis) to get this together?" he said.
Before the Iraq war, the Army's policy called for troops to serve one year in combat and rest for at least two years before being redeployed.
But that rotation schedule quickly fell to the demands of the Iraq war, which has required far more troops than administration officials originally envisioned.
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.