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U.S. strains to maintain troop levels

Times Staff Writers

The Pentagon will send four National Guard brigades to Iraq and may extend the tours of five active-duty Army brigades by as much as four months as it strains to find troops to sustain the buildup in Baghdad through the end of the year.

The National Guard deployments -- 13,000 soldiers based in Arkansas, Indiana, Oklahoma and Ohio -- mark the first time since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that entire brigades are being called up for second combat tours. The four brigades served in Iraq, Afghanistan or the Balkans in 2004 or 2005.

“Obviously everyone is going to be a little apprehensive about going back to Iraq,” said Col. Kendall Penn, commander of the 39th Infantry Brigade Combat Team in Arkansas. “However, this is a mission that the unit has trained for.... It is a mission that we are capable of doing.”

The deployments come at a politically difficult time for President Bush, who is fighting efforts in the Democratic-controlled Congress to force him to withdraw combat forces from the 4-year-old war.

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The Army said the National Guard alert, sent over the weekend, was not related to the current buildup in Iraq. It said the action was taken in part to limit the tours of soldiers going to Iraq to a one-year deployment.

The National Guard units will not be sent to Iraq until December, so the military has to find other troops to meet the administration’s goal of deploying 20 combat brigades in Iraq through the end of the year.

To meet that goal, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates is considering four-month extensions for five brigades, or about 15,000 soldiers, according to a Pentagon official who spoke on condition of anonymity because Gates had not signed off on the plan.

Troops scheduled to return home in late summer would stay in Iraq through the fall, maintaining the desired brigade level until the National Guard units arrived.

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Under rotations already announced by the Pentagon, the troop buildup would last through August and then start dropping to 15 brigades as units returned home.

The Army has been forced to send two combat brigades back to Iraq without their normal one-year respite in order to sustain the buildup.

The deployments come as Congress is working on a bill that would fund the war through the end of the year but force Bush to start withdrawing troops.

Several Arkansas Democrats expressed concern that Bush was relying too heavily on the state’s National Guard.

“The best strategy for success in Iraq is not to continue to stretch our own military, National Guard and reserves too thin,” said Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.), “but instead to demand more responsibility from the Iraqi government to train more Iraqis to take control of their own police and military operations.”

Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) said he was certain that Arkansas National Guard forces would serve “bravely and honorably” but added, “We must all ask the president what is the plan for a successful outcome to this conflict.”

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Republican support

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Bush’s Republican allies appeared to be standing behind him Monday, even though some governors complained that the National Guard deployments hindered their ability to prepare for emergencies.

“While it is always difficult to hear that Oklahoma’s sons and daughters may be put in harm’s way,” said Rep. Mary Fallin (R-Okla.), “it is inspiring to see their continued willingness to do so in order to serve their country and protect our freedoms.”

The announcement about four-month tour extensions for the five brigades could come this week.

The Pentagon has already extended the tour of one Army brigade, a unit of the Minnesota National Guard, for four months as part of the buildup of forces in Baghdad.

Two Marine Corps regiments also have had their deployments lengthened.

Gates revised the deployment rules in January to try to prevent extensions and the loss of a year at home between deployments, known as “dwell time.”

But he acknowledged last week that there would probably be a “transition period” before the new policies took place. He said the transition could last as long as two years.

“We always anticipated, and talked pretty clearly about, the fact that there would be a transition time when there would be both extensions and violations of dwell policy, just because of the magnitude of the commitments we have,” Gates said.

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More than 200,000 National Guard troops have been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. Most were sent in the early months of the war.

In early 2005, nearly half of all troops in Iraq were National Guard or Reserve forces. They now make up 17% of the 145,000 soldiers and Marines in Iraq.

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Political implications

National Guard deployments are often controversial.

“Any use of the Guard overseas is fraught with domestic political implications,” said Loren Thompson, a military analyst at the Lexington Institute, a Virginia think tank. “The war has grown so unpopular that you have to be concerned if you’re in the White House about how voters will react to members of their community once again being called to go fight in a war that to many people seems kind of pointless.”

Members of National Guard and reserve units are drawn from the same community, so a large number of deaths in any brigade could have political reverberations.

The most prominent example of how casualties can effect politics occurred in a Marine Corps Reserve unit from Ohio. The company had 23 men killed during its tour in western Iraq in summer 2005, deaths that devastated families across the state.

In the 2006 midterm elections, Republicans lost almost every major statewide office in Ohio, including a GOP-held Senate seat and the governor’s office. Polls showed that the Republican losses, particularly in the Senate race, were connected to outrage over the war in Iraq.

The National Guard deployments come after Army officials pushed the Pentagon for more than a year to allow for second Guard combat tours to relieve pressure on the active-duty Army.

Under previous Pentagon guidelines, National Guard units were allowed to spend five years at home after their first combat tours. Gates also revised those rules in January.

The National Guard forces will get bonuses and be activated for a year, meaning they could be in Iraq for as little as 10 months. Previous National Guard deployments to Iraq have lasted as long as 18 months.

Indiana’s 76th Infantry Brigade, which was in Afghanistan for 16 months until August 2005, is the National Guard unit that will return to combat the quickest. It will have spent less than 2 1/2 years at home.

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peter.spiegel@latimes.com

richard.simon@latimes.com


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