Stretched by war demands, Army extends combat tour of a brigade in Iraq

Monday, September 25th 2006, 8:41 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Army is stretched so thin by the war in Iraq that it is again extending the combat tours of thousands of soldiers beyond the promised 12 months _ the second such move since August.

Soldiers of the 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division had been expecting to return to their home base in Germany in early January. Instead, they will stay in Iraq at least until late February, several officials said Monday. The soldiers are operating in western Anbar province, one of the most violent and dangerous parts of Iraq.

``The Army is coming to the end of its rope in Iraq,'' said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute, a private research group. ``It simply does not have enough active-duty military personnel to sustain the current level of effort.''

Of the 142,000 U.S. troops now in Iraq, nearly 120,000 are Army soldiers.

The tour extension affects between 3,500 and 4,000 soldiers in the brigade, officials said. They spoke only on condition of anonymity because the Pentagon had yet to make an announcement.

Asked about the matter at a news conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld declined to confirm the extension but said that ``from time to time there may be'' units required to stay in Iraq longer than scheduled. He alluded to a pending announcement.

Last month, the Army's 172nd Stryker Brigade was ordered to extend its tour in Iraq by up to four months. Some members of that unit had already returned to the brigade's home base in Alaska when the decision was announced. About 300 soldier had to go back to Iraq, drawing public complaints from some families.

Rumsfeld also appeared to hint at other adjustments to the troop rotation plan.

``We're also bringing some other units in earlier, which is another way of dealing with that issue'' of how to keep a sufficient number of troops in Iraq with a limited number of combat brigades available, Rumsfeld said.

The extension reflects a dilemma for Army leaders: either keep one group of soldiers in Iraq longer than promised, or replace them with another group that has not yet had its minimum 12 months at home between combat tours. Either choice risks upsetting some soldiers and their families. And the fact that the choice cannot be avoided is a sign that troop rotations in Iraq are squeezing the Army from several directions.

Some members of Congress are expressing concern that the military is over-stretched by the war. On Monday, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said the situation in Iraq is ``disintegrating'' into a civil war. ``My instinct is once the (November) election is over there will be a lot more hard thinking about what to do about Iraq and a lot more candid observations about it.''

The pinch is evident also in closed-door deliberations between the Army and administration officials over the size of the service's budget for 2008. The Army chief of staff, Gen. Peter Schoomaker, took the highly unusual step in August of delaying submission of the Army's budget plan, arguing that the service requires either a much bigger budget than the administration has proposed or relief from some of its worldwide commitments.

The Los Angeles Times reported in its Monday editions that Schoomaker is seeking $138.8 billion for 2008, or nearly $25 billion more than the limit originally set by Rumsfeld. The Army's budget this year is $98 billion.

The 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division is being extended in Iraq because the unit that is scheduled to replace them _ the 1st Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, from Fort Stewart, Ga. _ needs more time to prepare. If it had deployed as originally scheduled, it would not have had the minimum 12 months at home between combat tours.

The 3rd Infantry has already served two tours in Iraq, including the initial invasion of the country in March 2003.

Last week, the top American commander in the region said the U.S. military is likely to maintain and may even increase its force of more than 140,000 troops in Iraq through next spring. Gen. John Abizaid, head of U.S. Central Command, said he would consider adding troops or extending the Iraq deployments of other units if needed.

Until sectarian violence spiked early this year, Bush administration officials had voiced hopes that this election year would see significant U.S. troop reductions in what has become an increasingly unpopular war.

The Army has a stated goal of giving active-duty soldiers two years at home between overseas combat tours. However, the Army is unable to achieve that ``dwell time,'' as it's called, because it does not have enough brigades to meet the demands of simultaneous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It would not be a problem now if the situation in Iraq had improved enough to allow the Army to reduce its presence as originally planned.

Army Secretary Francis Harvey told The Associated Press last week that the amount of time between deployments has shrunk this year from to 14 months from 18 months. In the case of the 3rd Infantry, it appears at least one brigade will get only about 12 months.