WASHINGTON—Suffering rising casualties and a growing threat of more violence, the United States Tuesday abandoned plans to reduce its military force in Iraq sometime this summer and said it would keep about 135,000 troops there at least another year and a half.
Coupled with revelations Tuesday that at least 25 Iraqi prisoners have died in American custody and that at least two of them were murdered, the decision to keep the full U.S. force in Iraq indefinitely threatens to sour Iraqis on the U.S.-led occupation, make it even harder for the Bush administration to find an early exit from Iraq and raise new questions about U.S. policy among the American people and in Congress.
Administration officials had hoped that getting the United Nations more involved in Iraq, returning limited sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government on June 30 and holding elections early next year would defuse Iraqi and American doubts about the purpose and duration of the American military presence.
But the plan to keep all 135,000 troops in the country at least through the end of 2005 may make some Iraqis and Americans suspect that all three are merely window dressing for an American military occupation that has no end in sight.
"This is a difficult period, but our folks are there and are going to stay there" Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said at the Pentagon.
The decision, a stark turnaround from hopes last spring that the force would be down to 30,000 to 40,000 troops by last autumn, also highlights the administration's difficulties persuading other nations to help police Iraq. The Pentagon already had delayed a planned May reduction to 115,000 troops.
Army Gen. John Abizaid, head of the U.S. Central Command, requested the indefinite commitment after his troops suffered 137 combat deaths in April, the bloodiest month of the war.
Ten thousand additional active-duty Army and Marine troops will be sent to Iraq, along with 37,000 Reserve and National Guard troops.
Rumsfeld acknowledged the prospect of more violence against Americans as the country nears a planned June 30 turnover of some government control to Iraqis. "You're going to have a period of increased attacks," Rumsfeld said. "We just have to expect that."
Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the Democratic presidential candidate, said the decision underscored the need to get more international troops to help in Iraq.
"The Pentagon's announcement . . . underscores the urgent need for the administration to come up with a viable plan for internationalizing the military presence there so that American troops aren't bearing the bulk of that burden and risk," Kerry spokesman Phil Singer said.
Members of Congress from both parties said the extension was both necessary and expected.
"The situation in Iraq fluctuates and Secretary Rumsfeld is being responsive to the generals on the ground," said Sen. John Warner, R-Va., the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"I do think we need more forces in Iraq now," said Sen. Joseph Biden, D- Del., the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The widening prisoner abuse scandal has cemented Iraqis' mistrust of American authorities and skepticism over pledges of a transparent, democratic judicial process to replace the brutal system of Saddam Hussein. The Abu Ghraib photos showing alleged abuse are splashed across Arabic-language newspapers and have led regional newscasts for the past week.
The scandal could stoke more civil unrest and violence as Iraqis face delayed independence at the hands of occupiers whose promises are perceived as emptier with each new abuse report. There's already talk of a large demonstration in front of Abu Ghraib this week. Past protests at the prison have turned hostile as distraught family members squared off with soldiers who wouldn't divulge information about detainees.
Shatha Qureishi, an Iraqi attorney who's handled detainee compensation cases since June, said it was easier to get information on prisoners in Saddam's era. She said there were records of arrests that lawyers could distribute to worried relatives. These days, she said, she spends weeks trying to track down prisoners and their charges. She has written off at least one as "disappeared."
"Under Saddam, they had the right to hire an attorney, go to security services and submit a request for information that was answered within 40 days," Qureishi said. "Even if they were unfairly executed or imprisoned, at least we could find out a sentence. Now, we don't know what happens to those who are detained."
But not all Iraqis believe the abuse allegations are as widespread as recent reports suggest. Salwa Ibrahim, a 44-year-old mother of two who runs a bakery from her Baghdad home, said a family friend was released from Abu Ghraib and had nothing but praise for his captors. He said American prison guards gave him regular medical checkups and nutritious meals.
"When my friend was freed, he told me, `I used to hate the Americans, but now I don't.' They really treated him well in there," Ibrahim said.
(Allam reported from Baghdad, Iraq. Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Sumana Chatterjee contributed to this report.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.