updated 1/28/2004 8:40:40 PM ET 2004-01-29T01:40:40

The U.S. Army’s top general said Wednesday he is planning for the possibility that the Army may be required to keep tens of thousands of soldiers in Iraq through 2006.

Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff, told the House Armed Services Committee that “for planning purposes” he has ordered his staff to consider how the Army would replace the force that is now rotating into Iraq with another force of similar size in 2005 — and again in 2006.

The decision about when to end the U.S. military presence in Iraq will be made by President George W. Bush and his national security aides, in consultation with American commanders in Iraq. As a service chief, Schoomaker’s role is to ensure that soldiers are trained and equipped for any mission the president requires.

Of the approximately 105,000 troops going to Iraq this winter and spring to replace the 130,000 who have been there since the start of the war, about 80,000 are Army soldiers. The replacement force, which includes 25,000 Marines, is scheduled to spend a full year in Iraq.

Army officials have said that planning for the 2005 rotation of forces into Iraq will begin in February.

The requirement for large numbers of ground forces in Iraq has stretched the Army, which also has major commitments in Afghanistan, South Korea and the Balkans. Schoomaker said the Army has used emergency authority to go beyond the limit set by Congress on the number of soldiers who can be in uniform. He said the Army now is about 11,000 soldiers above the 482,400 limit.

Exceeding troop limits
Schoomaker also said Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has authorized the Army to temporarily exceed the limit by as much as 30,000.

But Schoomaker said he was opposed to Congress passing legislation to permanently expand the size of the Army, mainly because it would be too costly.

“I’m adamant that that is not the way to go,” the Army chief said.

Members of the House panel expressed surprise that Rumsfeld had agreed that the Army needed as many as 30,000 more soldiers, since he has publicly opposed a legislative move to expand the service.

Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher said it sounded as if Rumsfeld was accomplishing through the use of his own executive powers the troop increase that he had resisted in Congress.

Concern over stretched Army
Rep. Ike Skelton, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said he was concerned that the requirement for large numbers of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan may break the Army.

“This does not mean we should pull back from our commitments,” Skelton said. “We can’t unring the bell. We’re there. We’ve got to win. We’ve got to stabilize that country,” he said of Iraq. “We cannot afford that to evolve into a civil war.”

Even while the Iraq war continues, the Pentagon is planning a new offensive in the two-year-old Afghanistan campaign to try to stop remnants of the Taliban regime and the al-Qaida terrorist network, officials said Wednesday.

Orders have been issued to prepare equipment and supplies, though the operation will not necessarily require additional troops in the region, where about 11,000 Americans are still deployed, a defense official said on condition of anonymity.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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