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U.S. to boost troop strength in Iraq

WASHINGTON—The United States plans to increase its military force in Iraq by 12,000 soldiers and Marines, bringing combat strength to the highest level since the invasion in 2003.

Officials who announced the plan Wednesday said it was designed to step up pressure on insurgents, who've been locked in fierce battles with U.S. and allied Iraqi forces for the past month, and to improve overall security in advance of Iraq's Jan. 30 election.

"It's mainly to provide security for the elections, but it's also to keep up pressure on the insurgency after the Fallujah operation," said Army Brig. Gen. David Rodriguez, deputy director of regional operations, who briefed reporters on the plan.

U.S. and Iraqi forces troops launched a massive, two-pronged offensive last month designed to sweep Iraqi and foreign guerillas from Fallujah and other strongholds in Anbar province west of Baghdad and from a vast area south of the capital. More than 130 U.S. soldiers died in November, making it the deadliest month for American forces since the war began.

U.S. military forces are stretched thin as a result of the war in Iraq and the war against the Taliban and al-Qaida insurgency in Afghanistan.

The Pentagon plans to find the extra forces for Iraq by extending combat tours of approximately 10,400 soldiers. In addition, Marines already there will have their tours upped by as much as two months and an additional 1,500 fresh soldiers will join the battle.

The troops whose tours have been extended include: 4,400 soldiers from the 2nd Brigade, 25th Infantry Division, Schofield Barracks, Hawaii; 3,500 soldiers from the 1st Brigade, 1st Calvary Division, Fort Hood, Texas; and 2,300 Marines from the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, Okinawa, Japan.

An additional 160 soldiers from the 66th Transportation Company, based in Germany, also have been told they will not be returning home for another two months.

In addition, 1,500 paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division out of Ft. Bragg, N.C., received notice Tuesday that they will be sent to Iraq for as long as 120 days. They will replace soldiers with the 1st Calvary Division, currently assigned to Baghdad, freeing those troops up to join the offensive outside the Iraqi capital.

Rodriguez and other officials said Army Gen. George Casey, commander of multinational forces in Iraq, requested the extension because he wanted experienced and battle-hardened soldiers to keep pressure on the insurgents. Combat tours in Iraq are generally limited to 12 months. Under the plan, those currently in Iraq would remain up to 14 months.

The increase would bring the total number of U.S. forces in Iraq to just below 150,000, approximately the same number that took part in the 2003 invasion.

Rodriguez and other officials said there were no plans to accelerate deployment of other units, including the 3rd Infantry Division, which led the charge to Baghdad last year and now is scheduled to return beginning in mid-January. Troop strength should return to current levels by March, Rodriguez said, though he acknowledged he could make no guarantees.

With the war in Iraq growing increasingly unpopular, especially among Democrats, the Pentagon announcement drew immediate fire from Capitol Hill.

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., who helped push successfully for an amendment earlier this year to add more troops to the Army, said the announcement means U.S. involvement could last for years to come. Some war critics have suggested that the United States should withdraw from Iraq after the Jan. 30 election.

"This announcement makes it clear that commanders in Iraq need more troops and that this will be a long and very expensive process for the United States," said Reed, who visited Iraq last month. "It is still not clear whether Iraq will emerge from this chronic violence as a viable and stable country."


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.