By LOLITA C. BALDOR
The Associated Press
Friday, July 28, 2006; 6:08 PM
WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon's decision to increase U.S. forces in Iraq will push troop levels there to roughly 135,000, dashing Bush administration hopes of dropping the figure by tens of thousands by the fall congressional campaigns.
As of Friday, there were 16 Army and Marine brigades in Iraq, two more than the number several months ago. Total troops there had already reached 132,000 and will climb in the coming weeks because of a decision to delay the scheduled return home this month of an Alaskan Army brigade.
The decision came in response to the escalating violence in Baghdad, and the new troop levels could remain for much of the next year.
"You're going to see that spike, that is a sustained spike, for a while, and you're going to still have force rotations that take place," said Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman. He added that the increases could push totals above 135,000 when brigades overlap as they are moving in and out of the country.
"What you're seeing is a flexible and adaptable force, based on those changing dynamic conditions that are now being addressed by the application of additional Iraqi and U.S. forces," he said.
The increase comes as members of Congress are preparing to return to their home districts and push into their re-election campaigns _ and it robs them of the ability to tell an increasingly impatient public that the number of U.S. troops in Iraq will substantially drop by the end of the year.
"It is deeply troubling to me that after more than three years, the Bush administration appears no closer to having a plan for turning over full responsibility for security to the Iraqi government, which is where it must reside if Iraq is to be a fully sovereign country," said Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn.
But Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, R-Va., said, "It's not a point of disappointment or bad news. It's factual" that the troops are needed.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has been steadfast in his insistence that troop levels will be adjusted according to conditions on the ground. Still, officials, including military commanders and lawmakers, had hoped to see the numbers drop to about 100,000 by year's end.
Earlier this year, there were suggestions that the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, would make recommendations to Rumsfeld in the spring that could begin showing a decrease in American troops. But a Tuesday announcement mapping out five more Army and Marine brigades scheduled to go to Iraq later this year signaled that any decrease is highly unlikely.
"This is somewhat disappointing, but I don't think it's a case of the administration or General Casey breaking faith with anyone," said Andrew Krepinevich, a retired Army officer who is now executive director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. "The next six months are critical. ... There are a number of things that are coming together and if you need to have troops on hand to tilt odds in your favor, that's what you do."
He said that over the next six months officials will get a better understanding of whether the Iraqi government will be strong enough to pull the country together, and whether the Iraqi military will be able to stand on its own.
On the political front, he said the president will need to better lay out a roadmap for success in Iraq so that Americans can make more sense of the war and a plausible way ahead.
Others, however, argue that increasing the military presence in Iraq will make matters worse, not better.
"Keeping more troops there is internally consistent with the administration's view on how to win the war _ they think our troop presence is helping and that more troops will help to calm the situation," said Winslow Wheeler, a military analyst with the Center for Defense Information think tank.
But, he said, more insurgency experts are arguing that adding troops will only fuel the violence.
Rumsfeld on Thursday extended the tours of some 3,500 members of the 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, based at Fort Wainwright in Alaska. The unit, which has been serving in northern Iraq, was scheduled to be leaving now, but instead the troops will stay for up to four more months and many may go to Baghdad.
An Iraq commander of another unit, speaking from Baghdad to Pentagon reporters, said Friday that soldiers' morale is good. He said while none want to hear that their time in Iraq has been extended, they understand the importance of the mission.
"A year is a long time over here, and none of us look forward to staying here," said Army Col. John Tully, commander of 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division. "But we're soldiers and we do what we're told."
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