U.S. to Open Talks on Shifting of Troops

Times Staff Writer

The Bush administration is launching formal talks with a host of allies next month on an ambitious U.S. plan to reshuffle tens of thousands of American troops now posted around the globe.

The Pentagon, citing the war on terrorism, has been working for months on what senior officials envision as the most substantial overhaul of its global "footprint" of troops since the end of World War II.

"The once-familiar threats facing our nation, our friends, and our allies have given way to the less predictable dangers associated with rogue nations, global terrorism and weapons of mass destruction," President Bush said in a statement. "While we continue to make progress in the transformation of our uniformed military, it remains for us to realign the global posture of our forces to better address these new challenges."

Officials at the Pentagon have held informal talks with governments such as Japan, South Korea and Germany on the possibility of moving some U.S. forces long based in those countries, and establishing new bases in the former East Bloc countries of Hungary, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld described the plan at a briefing Tuesday as an effort to position troops to react more quickly to trouble around the world, especially in the Middle East. Among the changes under discussion are moving U.S. soldiers away from the Korean demilitarized zone into central South Korea; shifting some troops from Japan to other parts of the region; and scaling back the vast bases in countries such as Germany.

"It's a readjustment to fit the 21st century," Rumsfeld told reporters at the Pentagon.

As early reports have emerged of the plan over the last year, some allies have accused the Pentagon of having little regard for the consequences of moving troops out of countries that have long counted on their presence to boost their economies and their sense of security.

The president, as well as senior State and Defense officials, sought to deflect such complaints Tuesday by declaring that no final decisions have been made. In his statement, Bush said the United States "will intensify our consultations with the Congress and our friends, allies, and partners overseas on our ongoing review of our overseas force posture."

But in a background briefing, senior State Department and Pentagon officials refused to discount the possibility that some troops deployed to Iraq could find that their units have been moved to new bases before they return home.

More than 112,000 U.S. troops are based in Europe, 80% of them scattered around Germany, including the Army's 17,000-strong 1st Armored Division, which is slated to return in January from a yearlong deployment in Iraq. The division and other U.S. troops were posted to Germany decades ago, when America's primary adversary was the nearby Soviet Union. Armored battalions in Germany could literally roll their tanks against a Soviet foe within minutes.

But with Europe now primarily a platform from which to send U.S. troops elsewhere, the limitations of basing personnel in places such as Germany and Italy are becoming evident. It took many days to move American armored divisions and their equipment out of Germany to ports to be ferried by sea to the Persian Gulf region. In Asia, U.S. troops have become a matter of local controversy at such locations as Okinawa, Japan.

In the long run, the officials said, the shift is designed to cut the time that service members are away from their families and sent to war zones.

"Not to do this would leave us stuck in patterns which are uneconomical and which cause deployments to drag on," a senior State Department official said. "The forces will immediately see the benefits" of the planned moves.

Moving some of the myriad U.S. military installations out of Western Europe and into countries on or near the Black Sea coast would make it easier to rapidly deploy forces to the Middle East and Africa.

Pentagon plans described by senior officials to The Times months ago call for building U.S. bases at the Sarafovo airfield in Bulgaria and the nearby Black Sea port of Burgas, where U.S. KC-135 refueling tanker aircraft and more than 200 troops were based during the war in Iraq.

U.S. facilities also will be built at the Romanian air base of Mihail Kogalniceanu and the Black Sea port of Constanta, both of which were used to ferry troops and equipment into Iraq.

The Pentagon also plans to take over vast military training grounds and firing ranges once used by the Soviet armed forces in Hungary and Poland, including the Krzesiny air base outside Poznan in western Poland.

In Asia, initial Pentagon plans call for moving some troops out of Japan and South Korea and establishing a network of small bases in Asian countries where the U.S. has never had a permanent military presence.

In another matter, Rumsfeld said at the briefing that Pentagon officials were discussing whether to recall former units of Saddam Hussein's army to help combat the spreading violence in Iraq. The U.S. decision to disband the army has been widely criticized.

But after aides passed him a note, Rumsfeld retracted that statement, saying the Pentagon was "not formally considering the possibility of using units of the Iraqi army. I'm told that it is not something that is actively under a formal consideration in the department."

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