The top commander in the Persian Gulf has decided he needs more troops than originally planned for this phase of the Iraq occupation, but will find them among troops already deployed in his region of operation, senior defense officials say.
His plan, while still not final, will likely rely on troops that would have left Iraq in May and from forces stationed in Kuwait, the sources said. Army Gen. John Abizaid, chief of U.S. Central Command, would not pull significant numbers of troops from Europe or the United States, the sources said.
Gen. Abizaid also will not draw troops from his region’s other hot spot — Afghanistan — where about 10,000 American troops are battling an al Qaeda and Taliban insurgency.
There are about 135,000 American troops in Iraq at a time of a massive rotation that is taking out five Army divisions and replacing them with fresh Army and Marine Corps units. When the rotation ends, the plan is to have personnel levels approaching 110,000. If the rotation is suspended now, it would give commanders an extra 25,000 soldiers to fight a growing insurgency.
This would be accomplished in part by delaying the departure of the 1st Armored Division, whose sector is Baghdad. Its replacement, the 1st Cavalry Division, from Fort Hood, Texas, would then be free to fight in other sectors.
A defense source said Gen. Abizaid has presented various options to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. The Joint Staff, the planning arm for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in turn has been giving Gen. Abizaid options for where he may draw additional manpower.
“The door is open for whatever Abizaid thinks he needs,” said a senior defense official.
“Abizaid has a general idea of what he needs” but had not yet made a final recommendation to Mr. Rumsfeld, the official added.
The need for more troops is driven by an new uprising that has both Sunni and Shi’ite Muslim Iraqis in the north and south attacking coalition forces. The ongoing battle in Fallujah was somewhat expected, given the fact the town is a hotbed of Saddam Hussein loyalists and foreign fighters yet to be eradicated in the occupation’s first year.
What was not expected is the revolt in the south led by firebrand Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al Sadr. Last weekend, he ordered his 3,000-man private militia to start killing coalition personnel and capturing government buildings in the towns of Najaf, Karbala and Kut.
The United States has vowed to destroy Sheik al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. But it is holding off on an operation to take out the cleric, who is holed up in Najaf, surrounded by hundreds of his black-clad followers. The coalition first wants the tens of thousands of pilgrims visiting holy sites to leave next week with the end of Arba’in, a Shi’ite holy period.
Asked about more troops for Iraq, Mr. Rumsfeld said earlier this week that commanders “will decide what they need and they will get what they need. At the present time, they’ve announced no change in their plans. But they could make such a request at any time.”
A Bush administration decision to veer from planned troop levels could be seen as an admission that planners miscalculated the time it would take to tame Iraq. For months, administration critics, specifically retired Army officers, have argued that the occupation force was too light to enforce security in a country of 26 million and the size of California.
Retired Gen. Eric Shinseki testified to Congress while he was Army chief of staff that the United States needed at least double the current occupation army to enforce peace. He quickly met a rebuke from Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, a key proponent of going to war to oust Saddam.
Mr. Wolfowitz testified that it was not logical to say it would take more soldiers to occupy Iraq than were required to win the war.
Some officers say privately that the rebuke has intimidated commanders in Iraq. But Mr. Rumsfeld’s aides say the defense secretary always has been open to a request and frequently asks Gen. Abizaid, “What do you need?”
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