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Officials disagree over number of troops needed in postwar Iraq

WASHINGTON—A quiet debate is continuing among senior Army leaders and top Defense Department civilians over how many soldiers it will take to keep the peace and feed refugees in a postwar Iraq.

The debate first became public in late February when Army chief of staff Gen. Eric Shinseki told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he thought "something in the order of several hundred thousand" troops would be needed to occupy Iraq.

"We're talking about a post-hostilities control over a piece of geography that's fairly significant, with the kinds of ethnic tensions that could lead to other problems," Shinseki said.

Two days later, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz told a House committee that Shinseki's projections were "wildly off the mark" and added that it was "not a good time to publish highly suspect numbers." Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld later said that Shinseki "misspoke himself." Shinseki, through a spokesman, declined to back down.

In the days since, Pentagon civilian officials have proposed to top military officials an occupation force in the range of 45,000 to 60,000 persons, military officials say. Shinseki continues to believe that the option of an even larger force should be preserved because of the country's size and history of ethnic stress.

Proponents of a larger force note that Iraq is the size of California and contains 24 million inhabitants, many of whom have long-standing grudges and feuds that could erupt after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

By way of comparison, Shinseki in 1997 commanded 60,000 allied soldiers to keep the peace among the 4 million residents of Bosnia, a ratio of one solider to every 67 residents. If that model were used in Iraq, 360,000 soldiers would be required.

Similarly, the British Army in 1995 kept 19,000 soldiers in Northern Ireland to control a population of 1.6 million, or a ratio of 1 soldier to every 84 residents. By that model Iraq would require an occupation force of 285,000 American and allied troops, according to figures released by the Army.

The size of the occupation force has several ramifications. The Army has fewer than 490,000 soldiers in uniform, and its officers have complained that peacekeeping requirements in Bosnia, Kosovo, Suez and Afghanistan already have stretched that force thin. Additionally, maintaining such a force in Iraq would cost hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

Other senior military leaders wonder if the peace can be kept in Iraq by any American or multilateral force, no matter how large.

Iraq is a patchwork of potential flashpoints. Saddam and his fellow Tikriti clansmen have maintained their grip on power through fear, brutally repressing the Shiite Muslim minority in southern Iraq, and have applied the same solution to Kurdish and Turkoman minorities in the north.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.