40,000 told to prepare for action

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The Louisiana National Guard unit that was called home in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was ordered yesterday to prepare to return to Iraq for its second tour.

The members of the 256th Brigade Combat Team were not alone.

Pentagon officials notified about 40,000 active-duty and National Guard soldiers yesterday that they will be deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan in the upcoming months and years. About 25,000 active-duty troops and 14,000 National Guard members will be called to replace those returning from the region. The majority will be going to Iraq.

“All four [National Guard] brigades will have a security force mission and be assigned tasks to assure freedom of movement and continuity of operations in the country,” the Defense Department said.

The deployments will not affect Pentagon plans to maintain troop levels at 140,000 by the end of July, once withdrawals are completed, officials said.

The Pentagon’s policy of limiting Army tours of duty to 12 months, rather than the current 15 months, will take effect in August.

Many of the soldiers who are to be deployed later this year returned from Iraq late last year, giving them more than a year at home to rest and train, Pentagon officials said.

The Louisiana brigade, with headquarters in Lafayette, spent a year in Iraq before Katrina stormed ashore on Aug. 29, 2005. Twenty-two soldiers from the brigade were killed during the Iraq deployment.

Most of the deployments announced yesterday will begin in the fall and continue until the end of the year.

About 155,000 U.S. troops are currently serving in Iraq and more than 33,000 in Afghanistan.

“This is not something we can easily walk away from,” a senior military official said. “These countries need stability before we can pull out; this is something for the long haul.”

In April, Gen. David H. Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq and soon to be commander of U.S. Central Command, where he will oversee both Afghanistan and Iraq, told senators that analysis of the political and security situation in Iraq was not a “mathematical exercise.”

He warned lawmakers during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee that “fragile and reversible” security gains from the surge of U.S. troops in Iraq would be shattered by a precipitous pullout. He recommended a pause of troop reductions in July followed by an assessment period to decide how to proceed.

Most National Guard brigades heading to Iraq will provide security. The Vermont National Guard, consisting of about 3,100 soldiers, is scheduled to go to Afghanistan in 2010 to train government forces.

Gen. Petraeus said the United States will complete the withdrawal of the 20,000 troops sent to Iraq in last year’s “surge.” The highest troop level reached in Iraq included 20 brigades with more than 170,000 troops.

In April, Gen. Petraeus said at a roundtable meeting with reporters that he wanted 45 days to evaluate the security conditions in Iraq before deciding which troops to withdraw.

Under the plan announced yesterday, the United States could keep 15 brigades in Iraq through the end of the year, as voters elect a new president.

The deployment announcement involves one division headquarters and seven brigade combat teams.

National Guard units from Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Texas also were alerted that they will be deployed to Iraq.

Units “are receiving alert orders now in order to provide them the maximum time to complete their preparations,” the Defense Department announcement said. “It also provides a greater measure of predictability for family members and flexibility for employers to plan for military service of their employees.”

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