The U.S. Army expects to keep its troop strength in Iraq at the current level of about 120,000 for at least two more years, according to the Army's top operations officer.
While allowing for the possibility that the levels could decrease or increase depending on security conditions and other factors, Lt. Gen. James J. Lovelace Jr. told reporters yesterday that the assumption of little change through 2006 represents "the most probable case."
Recent disclosures that the Pentagon plans to beef up training of Iraqi security forces and press them into action more quickly has fueled speculation that the Bush administration could be preparing to reduce the number of U.S. troops significantly this year. As more Iraqi troops join the fight, the thinking goes, U.S. troops could begin to withdraw.
But Lovelace's remarks indicated that the Army is not yet counting on any such reduction. Indeed, the general said, the Army expects to continue rotating active-duty units in and out of Iraq in year-long deployments and is looking for ways to dip even deeper into reserve forces -- even as leaders of the reserves have warned that the Pentagon could be running out of such units.
"We're making the assumption that the level of effort is going to continue," Lovelace said.
In a related development, Senate and House aides said yesterday that the White House will announce today plans to request an additional $80 billion to finance the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That would come on top of $25 billion already appropriated for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. White House budget spokesman Chad Kolton declined to comment.
White House budget director Joshua B. Bolten is to describe the package to lawmakers today, but the budget request will come later, the aides said. Administration officials have said privately for several weeks that they will seek the additional funding, the result of continuing high costs incurred battling an unexpectedly strong insurgency in Iraq.
Lovelace, who assumed his post of deputy chief of staff for operations in October, spoke to a small group of Pentagon reporters in what had been billed as an informal "meet and greet" session. The conversation quickly focused on the Army's planning for Iraq.
The number of U.S. Army and other forces in Iraq rose to 150,000 last month in what Pentagon officials described as an effort to bolster security ahead of Iraqi elections this weekend.
Lovelace made it clear that the Army's assumption about future U.S. force levels was not meant to prejudge likely trends in either Iraq's security situation or development of its security services. He said the planning is intended to ensure that enough units would be ready if needed and to give U.S. troops a basis on which to organize their own lives.
"It's really about us providing the predictability to our own soldiers," he said. "It has nothing to do with the Iraqi army; it has everything to do with our own institutional agility."
Asked about the Army's assumption, Lawrence T. Di Rita, the Pentagon's main spokesman, said he was "not surprised" to hear that the Army has chosen such a number, noting the need for service leaders to do such planning. "But it's not going to be the Army's determination," he said. "Ultimately, the determination will be made by the commanders" in the field.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's belief, Di Rita added, "is that we will continue to see Iraqi security forces grow in capability. We will continue to see the need for the foreseeable period ahead to have a significant commitment of U.S. assistance as that capability develops. But there isn't anybody who has made any determination about timing or numbers."
Rumsfeld and other senior officials are reviewing recommendations from Army Gen. Gary Luck about measures to accelerate the training and boost the performance of the Iraqi security forces. Luck, who has returned to Washington after visiting Iraq last week, has endorsed plans by field commanders to increase the number of trainers substantially. But this increase is to come by shifting the missions of U.S. troops already assigned to Iraq rather than by deploying more forces, officials said.