By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 9, 2006
The Pentagon announced yesterday that it will delay sending a brigade of several thousand U.S. ground troops to Iraq as American commanders weigh the possibility of a further drawdown of U.S. forces there.
The military notified about 3,500 soldiers with the Army's 2nd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, based in Schweinfurt, Germany, that they will not begin deploying in early May as scheduled, and defense officials said they will hold off on shipping the brigade's vehicles and other equipment. The troops were supposed to begin operating in Iraq in late June or early July.
Defense officials stressed that the delay does not signal the start of a U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq and will have no immediate impact on U.S. troop strength, which now stands at about 133,000.
"It's a very narrow decision just to hold this unit for now," said Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman, adding that it is likely the brigade will still deploy "somewhere down the road." Whitman said: "It's my understanding that it will deploy at some time. They are trained; they're equipped and ready to go."
Instead, the decision to postpone the deployment was intended to give more time and flexibility to U.S. commanders in Iraq, led by Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., while they and Iraqi leaders assess the insurgency and sectarian violence amid the formation of a new Iraqi government.
"General Casey has not come forward with recommendations for any troop adjustments," said another defense official. "Really, it's a decision to buy him a little more time to make his overall assessment before you are spending money and moving stuff."
Defense officials familiar with rotation plans have said Casey is likely to provide a new assessment this spring or summer on the level of U.S. troops needed in Iraq. Last year, Casey suggested that a substantial troop reduction would be possible in 2006 barring a major increase in the insurgency or political upheaval. Another senior commander in charge of military operations, Lt. Gen. John R. Vines, predicted after his return in January from a year-long tour in Iraq that the country's growing security forces, now numbering some 250,000, would be capable of handling the insurgency in the "relatively near term."
But defense officials said such expectations were dimmed somewhat as Iraq struggled to form a new government, and further complicated when the bombing of a holy Shiite shrine in Samarra in February unleashed a wave of sectarian killings and heightened the prospect of civil war.
In fact, the fresh violence led Casey in mid-March to bolster U.S. forces in Baghdad with a battalion of several hundred U.S. soldiers from a reserve force stationed in Kuwait. That battalion, part of the 1st Armored Division, will now probably remain in Iraq until the seating of the new government is complete, defense officials said.
Still, the latest delay ordered by Casey suggests a hint of renewed optimism over Iraq following the long-awaited selection of a new prime minister, Jawad al-Maliki, who is forming his Cabinet. "Clearly, there has been forward movement in the political process," Whitman said.
The 1st Infantry brigade delayed yesterday was one of six Army brigades identified last November for the rotation into Iraq beginning this year and stretching into 2008. The schedule by which the brigades are to ship out provides ongoing opportunities for Casey to hold back, or "off-ramp," units, effectively shrinking the force in Iraq by not replacing troops who rotate out of the war zone.