Increase in Iraq force is likely
Jim MacMillan / AP
BAGHDAD, Nov. 21 - Senior U.S. military commanders in Iraq say it is increasingly likely they will need a further increase in combat forces to put down remaining areas of resistance in the country.
Convinced that the recent battle for Fallujah has significantly weakened insurgent ranks, commanders here have devised plans to press the offensive into neighborhoods where rebels have either taken refuge after fleeing Fallujah or were already deeply entrenched.
But the forces available for these intensified operations have become limited by the demands of securing Fallujah and overseeing the massive reconstruction effort thereâdemands that senior U.S. military officers say are likely to tie up a substantial number of Marines and Army troops for weeks.
âWhatâs important is to keep the pressure on these guys now that weâve taken Fallujah from them,â a high-ranking U.S. military commander said, speaking on condition he not be named because of the sensitivity of the deliberations on adding more troops. âWeâre in the pursuit phase. We have to stay after these guys so they donât get their feet set.â
With some fresh U.S. forces already arriving in Iraq as part of a long-scheduled rotation, and two newly trained Iraqi brigades due to start operating next month, U.S. military leaders had hoped to avoid further increases.
But over the past week, a closer assessment of the forces needed for the Fallujah recovery effort and future offensive operations revealed a gap in desired troop strength, at least over the next two or three months, according to several officers familiar with the issue.
To boost the current level, military commanders have considered extending the stay of more troops due to rotate out shortly, or accelerating the deployment of the 3rd Infantry Division, which is scheduled to start in January. But a third optionâdrawing all or part of a brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division on emergency standby in the United Statesâhas emerged as increasingly likely.
Hinting at this possibility at a Pentagon news conference on Friday, Gen. Lance Smith, the deputy chief of U.S. Central Command, recalled that airborne forces were deployed to Afghanistan on a short-term basis to bolster military operations. Lance noted, however, that the Afghan case was âa little bit differentâ because âwe had a very small number of forces to begin withâ there.
If airborne units were rushed to Iraq, commanders here said, they likely would not be used in the offensive actions being planned, given their lack of heavy armor and their unfamiliarity with the targeted neighborhoods. Rather, their purpose would be to take over policing and other functions in Baghdadâs International Zone,. That would free locally seasoned units of the 1st Cavalry Division for such actions.
Much of the divisionâs 2nd Brigade, which had been patrolling Baghdad, was shifted to Fallujah for the battle there earlier this month and remains unavailable for action elsewhere. This situation is the cause of much of the pressure for reinforcements.
âWe feel that we need to keep the 2nd Brigade out there longer than we had originally thought, so weâre not going to have all the flexibility we wanted in December,â one senior military officer here said.
Some senior officers have worried that any move to bring in more U.S. troops could be perceived as a sign of U.S. vulnerability in the face of the tenacious insurgency or as a vote of no confidence in the ability of Iraqâs new security forces to fill the gap. It also could fuel the U.S. political debate over whether the Bush administration has committed enough forces to secure Iraq.
Pressing the fight
To further bolster U.S. forces in the short term, commanders also are considering extending the scheduled departure of the 2nd Brigade of the 25th Infantry Division, which has been assigned to the Kirkuk area.
U.S. military intelligence assessments portray the Fallujah offensive as having destroyed the insurgencyâs largest haven, but the assessments also acknowledge that the violent resistance campaign is far from broken nationwide. Since the Fallujah operation, insurgent attacks have continued across a broad stretch of Iraq, from northern cities to a restive area in Babil province south of Baghdad.
Although U.S. military officials have reported 1,600 or more enemy fighters killed in Fallujah, no key leaders of the insurgency were either killed or captured, according to senior officers here. Many insurgents who fled the city either before or during the battle are now thought by U.S. commanders to be looking for opportunities to regroup and mount new attacks.
âOur assessment is that the insurgency remains viable,â a senior military intelligence officer here said. âOne of the things we see the insurgents doing is moving to areas where we donât have a lot of presence.â
The number of daily attacks, which surged to about 130 at the start of the Fallujah operation, has declined to between 70 and 80 in recent days, roughly the level before the operation. But the senior intelligence officer said it is still too early to gauge the full impact of the Fallujah battle on the insurgency, estimating another week or two will be necessary for military analysts to get a clearer picture.
Everything found so far, the officer said, has confirmed Fallujah as the insurgencyâs largest and most significant stronghold. The sheer number of bombs, shells and other munitions discovered has stunned some senior analysts.
âThe number of caches theyâre finding, the weapons and things like that, are greater than we probably assessed,â the intelligence officer said. âSo we may have done more damage to their capability than we previously understood.â
In discussing battle plans, commanders here did not want to telegraph the areas U.S. forces might be focusing on for their next offensives. But some of the potential targets can easily be discerned by mapping the locations of attacks on U.S. forces, including areas in or around the restive cities of Mosul, Ramadi, Baqubah, Samarra and Baghdad.
At the same time, officers cautioned against expecting anything on the scale of Fallujah, which involved more than 10,000 U.S. troops and about 2,500 Iraqi forces.
âTheyâre not going to be big operations like Fallujah, because thereâs no place else in Iraq where the situation is like what it was there,â one commander said.
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