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Army chief of staff wants to ease restrictions on using reserves

WASHINGTON—Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker plans to tell the independent Commission on the National Guard and Reserves on Thursday that the Army needs to be able to mobilize the 345,000-member Army National Guard and 196,000-member Army Reserves more frequently and for longer periods than current restrictions allow, two senior Army officials said Wednesday.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly. They said Schoomaker hoped to gain the commission's support before he made a case for easing restrictions to incoming Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who takes over next week.

Under current law, National Guard and Reserve forces can be called to active duty for up to two consecutive years under a partial mobilization, which is what President Bush declared after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The practice under Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has been to mobilize part-time troops for no more than 24 cumulative months. National Guard and Reserve troops called for service in Iraq usually spend about six months training, then a year in Iraq, leaving them only six months of eligibility to serve in other active-duty roles.

Officials also have promised to call up part-time units no more than once every five years, which they said cuts the Army short of much-needed manpower. It also would make it much more difficult for the Bush administration to send as many as 40,000 more U.S. troops to Iraq, as officials are contemplating.

More than 1 million American servicemen and women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, many of them National Guard and Reserve troops.

"We're at war," one of the Army officials said. "This once-in-every-five-years rule ain't helping us."

The Commission on the National Guard and Reserves, which Congress created last year, is supposed to deliver a report to federal lawmakers by March 1 on recommended changes for part-time military forces.

The commission is meeting in Washington this week to receive testimony over legislative proposals to elevate the chief of the National Guard Bureau to four-star rank, give that position a seat on the Joint Chiefs of Staff and create separate budgets for training and equipment for the Reserves and National Guard.

The Pentagon opposes the proposals, both of which died in committee and failed to make it into the defense budget for fiscal 2007.

There are more than 450,000 part-time soldiers and airmen in the Army National Guard and Air National Guard, which are funded and equipped by the departments of the Army and the Air Force but usually remain under the control of state governors unless they're mobilized for wartime missions.

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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