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Pentagon Orders Iraq Replacement Troops

Times Staff Writer

The Pentagon on Wednesday began ordering thousands of troops -- including the Marines at Camp Pendleton who fought their way to Baghdad in April -- to replace military units in Iraq, defense officials said.

The number of U.S. troops in Iraq is expected to decline from 132,000 to 100,000 by May, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Wednesday at a congressional hearing.

At the same time, according to the Pentagon, Iraqis will assume a greater role in policing their country, with security forces expected to increase from 100,000 to 170,000.

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The new rotation would bring the 1st Marine Division, two U.S. Army divisions -- the 1st Cavalry Division from Ft. Hood, Texas, and the 1st Infantry Division from Wurzburg, Germany -- and a division-sized assortment of National Guard, Reserve and other units to relieve forces in Iraq between January and June, defense officials said.

The units to be replaced in Iraq include the 101st Airborne Division, which joined in the assault on Baghdad in March and oversees the northern areas of the country; the 4th Infantry Division from Ft. Hood and the 1st Armored Division, based in Germany. The 101st was to be replaced by a foreign division, but none materialized, Pentagon officials said.

The planned deployments mainly will be for patrolling and will mirror the current structure of U.S. military forces working to stabilize Iraq, suggesting that Pentagon strategists expect to face a persistent onslaught in 2004 by both foreign fighters and Saddam Hussein loyalists.

Some Pentagon officials expect the guerrillas to intensify their coordinated assault on U.S. troops during the rotation period from March through June, when tens of thousands of troops would be flying over Iraq as the American presidential primary season heats up. The Pentagon’s concern also stems from an acknowledgment within the military that the United States doesn’t know much about what the enemy is doing.

“There is a widespread view within the ground forces that the Iraqi guerrillas are trying to influence the election cycle,” said Loren Thompson, a military analyst with the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va., public policy group.

“U.S. intelligence about the enemy is so poor and the string of attacks have produced so many surprises that U.S. planners are no longer confident about being able to predict what sort of threat they will be facing in the new year,” he added. “Given that, they’re going to be maintaining a fairly substantial force.”

U.S. soldiers scored an intelligence coup Tuesday when they captured two unidentified former Iraqi generals in Fallouja. The two had weapons and were suspected of encouraging attacks on U.S. troops, said a senior defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

U.S. military planners had hoped to replace U.S. troops with foreign forces, but few nations have offered substantial numbers of soldiers. So far the U.S. has been joined by two multinational units of 12,000 troops each. Turkey has offered to send thousands of troops, but that plan has stalled because of opposition within the Iraqi Governing Council, in part by northern Iraqi Kurds, who have a history of mistrust and of border scuffles with Turkish troops.

As a result, a thinly stretched U.S. Army has made yearlong deployments to Iraq standard. To ease the burden, Pentagon officials said, the new deployments would supplement Army combat forces with Air Force and Navy units, as well as Reserve and National Guard units.

“It does include a call-up of reserves. It does include use of land forces. It does include the Navy and Air Force with their capabilities to participate,” Pace said.

Nevertheless, war-weary Marines from Camp Pendleton are expected to return for a second round of duty in Iraq.

On Oct. 20, Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, announced at Camp Pendleton that the Pentagon was considering sending Marines back to Iraq early next year. Although the size of the contingent has yet to be announced, planners at the base have been preparing to send about 20,000 Marines, probably in February.

An advance party of logistics experts flew to Iraq this week to prepare for the arrival of the force. More than 45,000 Marines from the base were deployed to the Middle East for the March 20 land offensive to topple Hussein; in 22 days of fighting, combat troops from the 1st Marine Division swept through many towns and villages en route to Baghdad and then northward to Tikrit, Hussein’s ancestral home.

Although some military analysts praised the plan to gradually replace U.S. troops with Iraqis, with the goal of improving intelligence-gathering and contact with Iraqi citizens, some lawmakers criticized the plan as disjointed and insufficient.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) bluntly dismissed Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s assertion that there were enough troops in Iraq to do the job.

“There does not appear to be a strategy behind our current force levels in Iraq other than to preserve the illusion that we have sufficient force levels in place to meet our objectives,” McCain said.

Other lawmakers have criticized the Pentagon, saying it has insufficiently equipped Reserve and National Guard units even as they tax those soldiers beyond their usual duties.

Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) has written to Rumsfeld, urging an investigation of reports of inadequate equipment.

Times staff writer Tony Perry in San Diego contributed to this report.


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