WASHINGTON -- The Army is again extending the combat tours of thousands of soldiers in Iraq beyond the expected 12 months -- the second such move since August.
Soldiers of the First Brigade, First Armored Division had been expecting to return to their home base in Germany in mid-January. Instead, they will stay an extra 46 days in Iraq, the Pentagon said yesterday. The soldiers are operating in western Anbar Province, one of the most violent parts of Iraq.
The Pentagon also said the Fourth Brigade, First Cavalry Division will deploy to Iraq 30 days earlier than scheduled, starting in late October. The announcement did not say why the speedup was deemed necessary.
The Pentagon said troop rotations could be changed even further ``based upon changes in the security situation." A surge in sectarian violence in Baghdad and continuing insurgent violence elsewhere in Iraq have foiled Pentagon plans to begin a troop reduction this fall.
``The Army is coming to the end of its rope in Iraq," said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute, a private research group. ``It simply does not have enough active-duty military personnel to sustain the current level of effort."
Of the 142,000 US troops now in Iraq, nearly 120,000 are Army soldiers.
The tour extension affects between 3,500 and 4,000 soldiers in the brigade, officials said.
Asked about the matter at a news conference with President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld declined to confirm the extension but said that ``from time to time there may be" units required to stay in Iraq longer than scheduled.
Last month, the Army's 172d Stryker Brigade was ordered to extend its tour in Iraq by up to four months. Some members of that unit had already returned to the brigade's home base in Alaska when the decision was announced.
The extension reflects a dilemma for Army leaders: either keep one group of soldiers in Iraq longer than promised, or replace them with another group that has not yet had its minimum 12 months at home between combat tours. Either choice risks upsetting some soldiers and their families.
Some members of Congress are expressing concern that the military is overstretched by the war.
``My instinct is once the [November] election is over, there will be a lot more hard thinking about what to do about Iraq and a lot more candid observations about it," said Senator Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania.