US-Iraq 7thLd-Writethru 04-04
APNewsBreak: Govt. plans to announce cut in Army combat tours from 15 months to 12
Eds: UPDATES with details, background.
By LOLITA C. BALDOR
Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Bush administration plans to announce next week that U.S. soldiers’ combat tours will be reduced from 15 months to 12 months in Iraq and Afghanistan beginning later this summer, The Associated Press has learned.
The decision, expected to get final, formal approval in the days ahead, comes as Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, prepares to deliver a progress report to Congress next week on the improved security situation there. He is also expected to make recommendations for future troop levels.
A senior administration official said Friday that plans are to deploy soldiers for 12 months, then give them 12 months rest time at home. Exactly which units would be affected is not yet clear. The official spoke on condition of anonymity ahead of the announcement.
The move to shorter deployments has been pushed by Gen. George Casey, Army chief of staff, as a way to reduce the strain on troops battered by long and repeated tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. But that goal has been hindered by the ongoing security demands in Iraq.
Officials have been publicly tightlipped in recent days about the move to reduce the tours. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Friday he expected a decision by President Bush "fairly soon" on the Army’s proposal. But he also cautioned that cutting troops’ time on the battlefront will impose limits on what the military can do in the future.
What the future holds for troops in Iraq will become clearer when Petraeus goes before congressional committees Tuesday.
Petraeus is expected to lay out his proposal for a pause in troop cuts after July when the last of the five additional brigades ordered to Iraq last year have come home. And he will likely tell lawmakers how many more troops could be withdrawn this year, as long as conditions in Iraq remained stable.
His presentation will include statistics reflecting the reduction in violence over the past seven months, but it will also note the latest spike in fighting in Basra, as Iraqi security forces took on Shiite militias, and the attacks that stretched out into Baghdad.
Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, U.S. ambassador to Iraq, are expected to tout political advancements by the Iraqis, although they will note that much more needs to be done.
Officials said Friday that the Army proposal to reduce tours is on track. Top military leaders made it clear to Bush in a closed-door meeting late last month that they are worried about the war’s growing strain on troops and their families.
Gates made the decision to extend deployments to 15 months last year, because that was the only way the Army could provide enough troops for the Bush-ordered military buildup aimed at quelling the violence in Baghdad.
Ever since, Gates, Casey and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have said they want to go back to 12 months tours as soon as possible.
There are now 158,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, including 18 combat brigades — down from a peak of 20 brigades for much of the past year. By the end of July, military leaders have said those numbers would fall to 140,000 troops, including 15 combat brigades.
Casey has said he could reduce combat tours if the demands on the Army were cut back to a total of 15 brigades in the war zone. At the end of July there would be 13 in Iraq — along with two Marine units — and two Army brigades in Afghanistan.