Marines to begin sending reserve combat battalions back to Iraq for second tours

Wednesday, October 18th 2006, 9:38 pm
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Marines are drawing up plans to send back to Iraq at least some reserve combat battalions that have already served one tour there, officials said Wednesday -- the first time such units would be returned to the war.

The plan to remobilize those reserve forces is designed to relieve some of the growing strain on active-duty Marines.

A Marine Corps spokesman, Lt. Col. Scott Fazekas, said Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld gave the Marines the go-ahead to conduct detailed planning on how the battalion reactivations would be done. Initially, Fazekas said Rumsfeld had approved the plan itself. Later he said the approval was for detailed planning.

Eric Ruff, a spokesman for Rumsfeld, said Wednesday evening that no specific proposals have been presented to Rumsfeld. "The Marines are reviewing a range of options and concepts for future consideration by the secretary and, to date, nothing has been approved," Ruff said.

The Army, which is organized differently than the Marine Corps, has not sent any of its National Guard combat brigades back to Iraq for a second tour, although it is considering making more use of the Guard. Both the Marines and Army have sent reserve support units and active-duty forces to Iraq multiple times.

The return of Marine Reserve combat battalions to Iraq would begin in 2008, according to a senior Marine officer who discussed the subject on condition he not be identified because no official announcement has been made. Thus, the first picked to go back probably would be remobilized next year to train for the mission.

The plan, put forward by Gen. Michael Hagee, the Marine commandant, could be modified as the situation in Iraq changes, officials said. For planning purposes, the Marines are working out future force rotations that would include at least one Reserve combat battalion starting in 2008.

The Marines have decided to take this unusual step in order to alleviate a problem that both the Marines and the Army are wrestling with as the Iraq war rages on unabated: wear-and-tear on the active-duty troops, who are getting far less time at home to recuperate and retrain than military leaders would like.

The short respites between combat tours are not only a morale issue but also an obstacle to providing soldiers and Marines with sufficiently varied training and adequate time to attend professional development schools.

The Marines, for example, are not doing as much training for large-scale, high-intensity combat -- combining their air, land and sea forces -- as they normally would do, officials said. They do, however, have the time to do high-intensity combat training on a smaller scale, in addition to counterinsurgency training for Iraq missions.

The Marines have 24 active-duty combat battalions. At any given time, nine of them are in Iraq.

To increase the amount of time between deployments, the Marines have decided to make more use of their reserve combat battalions, of which there are nine. The main restriction the Marine Corps faces is a 24-month limit on the amount of time a reservist can be mobilized, so those who were on active duty for more than 12 months the first time will not be remobilized, since the planned mobilizations would be for 12 months, Fazekas said.

The Marine plan does not represent a change in the 24-month policy, which is set by the partial mobilization order signed by President Bush in 2001. It pertains to deployments for Iraq, Afghanistan and other places deemed part of the global war on terrorism.

Marine battalions typically serve seven-month tours in Iraq. Marine Reserve units are mobilized for 12 months, to include pre-deployment training, seven months in Iraq and then a period of demobilization.

The Marines have not yet decided which of the nine Marine Reserve battalions would be the first to be recalled for another tour in Iraq, Fazekas said.

He said officials would examine which battalion is best prepared for a second combat tour, based on the number of Marine reserves in its ranks who are still eligible for mobilization, the condition of the unit's equipment, the state of its training and other factors.

The last of the nine Marine Reserve combat battalions to serve in Iraq is the 1st Battalion, 24th Marines, based in Michigan and Ohio. The battalion is operating in the Fallujah area in western Anbar province.