The number of U.S. troops in Iraq could jump to 171,000 this fall — a record high for this war — just as military leaders expect stepped-up insurgent attacks timed to a much-anticipated progress report from American commanders in Baghdad.
Army Lt. Gen. Carter Ham, director for operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Thursday that the planned rotations of five brigades moving out of Iraq and their replacements coming in will create the temporary surge in U.S. forces.
Once the transitions are complete, Ham said the troop level will drop back down to about 162,000, which is where it is today. And he said current plans are to stay about at that number into early next year — unless a reduction in forces is recommended by the commanders in their September report.
Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker are expected to provide a progress report to the president and Congress before Sept. 15. They, as well as Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, are likely to testify before Congress on the report and any recommendations on troop levels.
Congress has been pressing the administration to begin drawing troops out of Iraq.
“Clearly al-Qaida in Iraq and others are cognizant of the timing of recommendations and decisions,” Ham told Pentagon reporters during a briefing. “So I think it is prudent to expect them to try to influence the decision-makers. And clearly, the commanders in the theater are cognizant of that as well.”
Ham added that while Marine Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the other service chiefs are also doing their own review of progress in Iraq, he believes they will combine their effort with Petraeus, and that the president will be given one comprehensive report from the military.
In other comments, Ham said the military has seen more incidents in recent months where explosives are placed in homes or building in Iraq and set to detonate when troops enter. While it is not a new technique, he said, it exploits a vulnerability that officials are working to counter.
The booby-traps, which he described as small roadside bombs, have “been probably more prevalent in the past weeks and months than we had seen previously.”