WASHINGTON -- The Army is planning for the possibility of keeping the current number of soldiers in Iraq, now exceeding 100,000, for four more years, General Peter Schoomaker, the Army's chief of staff, said yesterday.
In an interview, Schoomaker said the Army is prepared for the ''worst case" in terms of the required level of troops in Iraq. He said the number could be adjusted lower if called for, by slowing the force rotation or by shortening tours for soldiers.
Schoomaker said commanders in Iraq and others who are in the chain of command will decide how many troops will be needed next year and beyond. His responsibility is to provide them, trained and equipped.
About 138,000 US troops, including about 25,000 Marines, are now in Iraq.
''We are now into '07-'09 in our planning," Schoomaker said. The planning for the coming year, based on a 12-month tour of duty, has been completed for combat and support units to be rotated into Iraq.
Schoomaker made his comments amid indications from Bush administration officials and commanders in Iraq that the size of the US force may be scaled back next year if certain conditions from the administration are satisfied.
Among those conditions:
An Iraqi constitution must be drafted in coming days.
The constitution must be approved in a national referendum. Elections must be held for a new government.
Schoomaker spoke aboard an Army jet on a trip back to Washington from Kansas City, Mo., where he had attended a dinner by the Military Order of the World Wars, a veterans organization.
Schoomaker made no predictions about the pace of political progress in Iraq. But he said he was confident that the Army could provide the current number of forces to fight the insurgency for many more years.
The 2007-09 rotation that Schoomaker and other Army officials are planning would go beyond President Bush's second and last term in office, which ends in January 2009.
''We're staying 18 months to two years ahead of ourselves" in planning which active-duty and National Guard and Reserve units will be provided to meet the needs of commanders on the field, Schoomaker said in the interview.
The main combat units scheduled to go to Iraq in the coming year are the 101st Airborne Division, based at Fort Campbell, Ky., and the 4th Infantry Division from Fort Hood, Texas. Both did one-year tours earlier in the war.
The Army has changed the way it arranges troop rotations.
Instead of sending a full complement of forces each 12-month cycle, it is stretching out the rotation over two years.
The current rotation, for 2005-07, will overlap with the 2006-08 replacements. Beyond that, the Army is piecing together the plan for the 2007-09 switch, Schoomaker said.
With the recent deployments of National Guard brigades from Georgia and Pennsylvania, the National Guard has seven combat brigades in Iraq, the most of the entire war, along with thousands of support troops.