WASHINGTON—U.S. Army soldiers deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan will serve at least 15 months in those combat zones, instead of 12, the Defense Department announced Wednesday.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the new rotation schedule would allow the Pentagon to guarantee units at least 12 months at home between war zone rotations. Without the change, he said, five brigades would have had to return to combat after less than a year at home.
But 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 acknowledgement 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 after the announcement. "We don't have to guess at the impact on readiness, recruitment and retention."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the change was "unacceptable," while Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., called it "another in a long line of examples of how the president's Iraq policies are making us less secure."
Republicans appeared divided. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., just back from his sixth trip to Iraq, said he supported the change. "The worst thing you could do to this military is to lose this war," he said.
But Sen. John Warner, R-Va., the senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services committee, voiced caution.
"Having served as Secretary of the Navy when the concept of the all-volunteer force was being developed, and having observed, in the ensuing years, the extraordinary success of that system in providing for America's security, I feel strongly that we must carefully monitor the possible risks to that system that these extensions may generate," Warner said.
The new schedule is effective immediately for all Army troops serving in or getting ready to deploy to either 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.
There are currently 104,000 Army troops in Iraq who will be affected by the change, the Pentagon said.
Finding enough troops to serve in Iraq has been a problem throughout the war's four years. On at least eight occasions, the Pentagon has had to extend the deployment of troops already in Iraq to meet security demands.
But the problem has become critical in the past three months after Bush announced what was to have been a temporary "surge" of 21,500 troops to help quell violence in Baghdad and Iraq's restive Anbar province. Initially, that surge was expected to last through the summer.
Now, however, U.S. commanders in Iraq are expected to keep troop levels up until at least next year and perhaps longer. Additionally, Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, has received permission to deploy an additional 7,000 troops.
On U.S. Army bases, commanders and families alike scrambled to determine the impact of the new deployment schedule.
Earlier this month at Fort Drum, N.Y., for example, members of the 1st Brigade, 10th Mountain Division, learned they would return to Iraq early, less than a year after their last rotation. Today, commanders scrambled to learn if they still were going early as their troops trained at Fort Polk, La.
"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 whose tours had already been extended, such as Fort Drum's 3rd Brigade Combat Division, wouldn't be extended again. That unit learned in January that it wouldn't return to the United States 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 the "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. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the extension is 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, an independent research institute, predicted that the change would 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 war's demands, which has required far more troops than administration officials originally envisioned.
On Wednesday, even supporters of the war said the extension showed that the Bush administration had misjudged the challenge.
South Carolina's Sen. Graham said he was sure U.S. troops would be disappointed in the longer rotations, but that they would "step up to the plate" and continue to serve their country.
"Don't let their sacrifice be in vain," he said.
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.