WASHINGTON -- Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said yesterday he has no plan to extend the mobilization of National Guard soldiers whose active-duty commitments are about to expire, but other officials said it was under consideration for about 450 guardsmen from Arkansas.
Rumsfeld was asked about a Los Angeles Times report that David Chu, the Pentagon's personnel chief, was considering waiving the 24-month mobilization limit for certain Arkansas Guardsmen in Iraq.
"No, we don't plan at the moment to extend people beyond the 24 months," Rumsfeld said, then quickly added: "Although one should never say never. And we are at war."
In an appearance before the House Armed Services Committee, Gen. General Peter Schoomaker, the Army's chief of staff, seemed to indicate that the matter was about to be resolved.
"The decision is in progress," Schoomaker said, adding that it was up to Rumsfeld.
The Times reported that the decision would affect about 450 soldiers of the Arkansas National Guard who have been in Iraq with the 39th Brigade Combat Team since April. The soldiers were first mobilized after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and sent to the Sinai Peninsula on a peacekeeping rotation.
The Pentagon's policy is to not keep members of the National Guard and Reserve on active duty for more than 24 months, although Rumsfeld noted in his remarks yesterday that the law defines the limitation as 24 consecutive months, whereas the Pentagon's practice has been to limit it to 24 cumulative months.
The cumulative total for the Arkansas Guardsmen in Iraq will reach 24 in September, although they will not have been on active duty for 24 consecutive months.
A related Pentagon policy is to limit all troops' time inside Iraq to 12 months, although that limit was exceeded this spring and summer by thousands of 1st Armored Division and 2d Armored Cavalry Regiment soldiers who were kept there in response to a surge in antioccupation violence.
Rumsfeld said he believes the US-led military coalition in Iraq is winning the battle against an insurgency that has begun focusing attacks more on Iraqi civilians and Iraqi infrastructure.
Rumsfeld added, however, that he could not rule out putting even more American forces into Iraq.
There are now about 140,000 US troops in Iraq and about 20,000 from other coalition countries.