WASHINGTON — The United States is expanding its military force in Iraq to 150,000, the highest level of the war, to bolster security in advance of national elections in January, officials said Wednesday.
The increase of 12,000 troops, which is to last until March, reflects the strength and resiliency of an insurgency that U.S. military planners did not foresee when Baghdad was toppled in April 2003.
Much of the build-up will be accomplished by extending tours for more than 10,000 soldiers who had been due to leave Iraq in the coming months, Army Brig. Gen. David Rodriguez, deputy operations director of the Joint Staff, told reporters Wednesday. The extension means those troops will now serve an average of 14 months in Iraq, two to four months longer than originally expected, officials said.
The military generally is reluctant to extend soldiers’ combat tours because of the potential negative effect it could have on their families, and thus on their willingness to remain in the service. In this case, Gen. George Casey, the most senior U.S. commander in Iraq, decided it was necessary to keep up pressure on the insurgents while also providing security for the elections, Rodriguez said.
Record number of troops
The decision will bring the U.S. force in Iraq to nearly 150,000 men and women, up from about 138,000 there now.
The previous high for the U.S. force in Iraq was 148,000 on May 1, 2003, when President Bush declared that major combat operations were over and most soldiers thought the war had been won. The initial invasion force included thousands of sailors on ships in the Persian Gulf and other waters, in addition to tens of thousands of forces in Kuwait and other surrounding countries.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld approved the moves Wednesday, according to a Defense Department statement.
“They are the most experienced and best-qualified forces to sustain the momentum of post-Fallujah operations and to provide for additional security for the upcoming elections,” the statement said.
The United States is raising the pressure as senior defense officials claim that the recent battle for Fallujah had put insurgents on the run and could mark a turning point in the Iraq war.
The officials told NBC News that Fallujah had been eliminated as a safe haven. They said the capture of more than a thousand enemy prisoners, along with computer files and documents, was providing a trove of intelligence to help identify and track down insurgents elsewhere.
Tours extended for four units
The officials identified the units whose tours were being extended as 4,400 soldiers from the 2nd Brigade of the Army’s 25th Infantry Division, 3,500 soldiers from the 2nd Brigade of the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division, 2,300 Marines from the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit and 160 soldiers from the 66th Transportation Company.
The 2nd Brigade of the 1st Cavalry Division is being extended for a second time. Its soldiers originally were told that they would be going home in November, but in October they got the news that they would remain until the Jan. 30 elections. Now they are being extended until March.
Those troops had been scheduled to be replaced by members of the 3rd Infantry Division or the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force who were set to rotate into Iraq in the coming months. Those deployments will proceed as scheduled.
The officials said 1,500 additional troops — two battalions of the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, based at Fort Bragg, N.C. — also would be dispatched to help provide election security.
Officials said members of the battalions and their families were notified Tuesday. The battalions were given what the Army calls a warning order, alerting them that they would be going. A battalion generally numbers about 500 to 600 troops.
Moves in line with expectations
The moves announced Wednesday were in line with expectations.
Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., a critic of the administration’s handling of the war, said the announcement confirmed that the effort to stabilize Iraq would take years, with no certainty of success.
“This announcement makes it clear that commanders in Iraq need more troops and that this will be a long and very expensive process for the United States,” Reed said. “It is still not clear whether Iraq will emerge from this chronic violence as a viable and stable country.”
Among the forces being rotated back into Iraq are members of the 3rd Infantry Division, which helped spearhead the original invasion and toppling of Baghdad in spring 2003.
The additional troops will be concentrated in areas were security problems are most severe in the so-called Sunni Triangle area north and west of Baghdad, as well as in the capital itself. Voter registration has not yet begun in the more unstable cities, such as Fallujah and Ramadi, west of Baghdad.
Recently, there also has been trouble in the northern city of Mosul. On Wednesday, U.S. soldiers traveling through Mosul on a mission to discuss the January election with Iraqis came under fire at a gasoline station, witnesses said. One U.S. soldier was wounded in the ensuing gunbattle.
NBC’s Jim Miklaszewski and Scott Foster in Washington and The Associated Press contributed to this report.