The U.S. military has dropped plans to boost its presence in Iraq by more than 20,000 troops to safeguard elections, a senior U.S. commander indicated Friday, with Hurricane Katrina putting demands on a force already stretched thin by the conflicts here and in Afghanistan.
The United States now plans to deploy about 2,000 extra troops for the Oct. 15 referendum on Iraq's constitution, bringing the U.S. total here "pretty close" to 140,000, Lt. Gen. John Vines told reporters in Washington during a video news conference.
The United States has 138,000 troops in Iraq. Pentagon officials said in late August that they expected to temporarily boost that number to 160,000 as part of U.S. and Iraqi efforts to block an expected increase in insurgent attacks timed to the October vote and December parliamentary elections. Pentagon officials said at the time that the troop increase would be accomplished mainly by delaying the return home of some units and speeding the arrival of others slated to replace them.
The overlap, combined with extra deployments, would have increased the U.S. presence to roughly the level of January, when Iraq held national elections. Vines said on Friday, however, that more Iraqi troops were now available.
Vines made no mention of the 160,000 figure that Pentagon officials gave late last month. Vines's aides could not be reached for comment Friday night, and a senior military spokesman in Iraq had no explanation for the lower number.
"Plans may have changed," said Lt. Col. Steven Boylan, the spokesman, who said he had not known of the Pentagon's plans to have 160,000 troops on hand for the elections.
Vines's announcement came as complaints grew in the United States that deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan had slowed the government's response to Hurricane Katrina. "I just completely disagree," President Bush said when asked about the assertions Friday as he toured areas hit by the hurricane. "We've got a job to defend the country in the war on terror" and to aid Americans at home, Bush said. "We have plenty of resources to do both."
In western Iraq, meanwhile, local leaders in the predominantly Sunni Arab region appealed Friday to U.S. troops to stay away from voting centers, fearing their presence would draw attacks by foreign insurgents.
Some insurgent groups in the region have urged Sunnis to vote against the constitution on Oct. 15 and have promised not to attack American troops that day. However, Abu Musab Zarqawi's foreign-led al Qaeda in Iraq organization has said any voter is a legitimate target. The group already has been linked to the killings of several Sunnis working to register Sunni voters.
Residents of the western city of Fallujah intend to secure the voting centers themselves, the police chief, Gen. Sabah Khalil Ani, told reporters there. "The tribal leaders and people in Fallujah asked us to keep U.S. forces away from the centers," Ani said.
Residents, not U.S. Marines, should protect the polling places, said Abdullah Mahmood, the cleric at the Farouk mosque in Fallujah. The presence of Marine guards would only serve to convince Iraqis "that Americans wrote the constitution and not the Iraqis," he said.
Political officials in Anbar province have voiced the same sentiment in recent weeks.
Boylan, the U.S. military spokesman, said Iraqi forces would take the lead in providing security for the October and December elections.
In Baghdad, Sunni, Shiite Arab and Kurdish officials confirmed that they still were negotiating aspects of the draft constitution, nearly a week after it was submitted in what authorities said was its final form, the Associated Press reported.
"Discussions are underway to make minor changes in the language to improve the text to satisfy some parties," a Shiite negotiator, Khalid Attiyah, told the AP.
Negotiations appear aimed at mollifying those who objected to the deletion of a phrase referring to the Arab nature of Iraq. The 22-nation Arab League complained bitterly about the deletion.
Political violence Friday included the killings of two Iraqi men who worked as cleaners on a U.S. military post in the western city of Ramadi, as well as a translator at the same post, said Lt. Hasan Utaiwi of the Iraqi army. The men were found handcuffed and shot in the head, he said.
The U.S. military reported that three GIs were killed by bombs and gunfire in Baghdad and the south.
In the mainly Shiite city of Basra, gunmen opened fire on worshipers at a Sunni mosque, killing one person, police said. And a roadside bomb killed a foreign security worker in Baghdad, the Reuters news agency reported.
Special correspondent Salih Saif Aldin in Tikrit contributed to this report.
A Shiite Muslim cleric at prayer services in the Sadr City section of Baghdad cries over the deaths of hundreds of Shiites in a stampede on a Tigris River bridge Wednesday. The pilgrims were marching to a religious shrine in Baghdad when a rumor of a suicide bomber caused a panic. As many as 950 pilgrims died. Their burials continued Friday.Lt. Gen. John Vines said U.S. troop total would be about 140,000.