WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon has decided to dispatch thousands of Marines to Iraq early next year as part of a revised troop rotation that will swell the size of the US occupation by up to 50,000 troops during critical months when the United States hopes to hand off greater security responsibilities to Iraqis, senior defense officials said yesterday.
Pentagon officials say the new plan is aimed at adding manpower to improve security in the short term -- when troop numbers will increase from the current 130,000 to as many as 180,000 -- but also meeting President Bush's goal of shrinking the force to 100,000 by the middle of next year.
Two Marine brigades -- with a total of between 12,000 and 20,000 active and reserve troops -- will be heading to Iraq beginning no earlier than January, the officials said. They will join a force that, under an existing rotation plan, will be temporarily increased by about 30,000, by having more troops arrive before others go home.
The plan will be announced today, officials said.
Yesterday, Marine Corps General Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a congressional hearing that the Pentagon would be "issuing orders tonight" that "include a call-up of reserves. It does include use of land forces. It does include the Navy and Air Force."
The highly trained Marines, who were among the first forces into Baghdad in April, will bring expertise in urban fighting and resistance to guerrilla attacks. One senior official said the United States has sorely missed their skills since the First Marine Division returned home in September.
The Marines will provide extra help at a crucial time, when the Pentagon is planning on steadily handing off more security responsibilities to newly trained Iraqis. There are now about 100,000 Iraqi security personnel, a number the US hopes to increase to 170,000 by next May.
The administration also hopes the new rotation plan will answer critics who have expressed increasing alarm about the extent of guerrilla resistance to the US occupation of Iraq, the officials said.
This week has been the bloodiest for American troops since the invasion, with 15 soldiers dying in a single missile attack on a Chinook helicopter on Sunday. Members of Congress have amplified their questions about whether the Army, now relying heavily on part-time National Guard and reserve troops, has sufficient forces to maintain security.
Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, lashed out at the Bush administration yesterday in a speech to the Council of Foreign Relations, in which he called for sending another division -- about 20,000 troops -- to Iraq.
"To win in Iraq, we should increase the number of forces in-country, including Marines and special forces, to conduct offensive operations," the former Navy fighter pilot and Vietnam prisoner of war said. "I believe we must deploy at least another full division. The realities on the ground are that things are not getting better."
"I think the next three to six months will determine how long we remain in Iraq," McCain added.
He also criticized the Pentagon's plan to accelerate the training of Iraqis to provide security so that the United States can reduce its forces in Iraq, saying it signals weakness amid a bloody insurgency blamed on Saddam Hussein loyalists, Islamic militants, and foreign terrorists.
"When our secretary of defense says that it is up to the Iraqi people to defeat Ba'athists and terrorists, we send a message that America's exit from Iraq is ultimately more important than the achievement of American goals in Iraq," McCain said. "If the US military, the world's best fighting force, cannot defeat the Iraqi insurgents, how do we expect Iraqi militiamen with only weeks of training to do any better?"
McCain's remarks were made as 51 members of the House Armed Services Committee wrote a letter yesterday to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld asking the Pentagon chief to take "strong, meaningful action" to boost the overall size of the active Army by two divisions to relieve some of the burden on National Guard and reserve soldiers.
But while McCain and others were calling for more forces, Democrats and some Republicans have been warning of the dangers of a long occupation -- and the toll it will take on American troops. Even a temporary increase in the number of troops is likely to set off further expressions of alarm.
A senior military official who asked not to be named said the revised rotation plan is structured so that Pentagon leaders can point to an eventual reduction in forces, even as the numbers increase in the short term. But if fighting continues to escalate, the official said, the Pentagon could delay some planned troop reductions.
"The reduction will still occur as planned -- if all goes according to plan," the official said.
Already, military planners are encountering some problems. Officials acknowledged yesterday that the United States has not been able to solicit allies for sufficient international troops to relieve the burden. Turkey, which said it would send 10,000 troops, said yesterday that it would now do so only with the blessing of the Iraqi Governing Council, which has opposed the deployments.
Before today, the rotation plan had included sending two active-duty Army divisions -- the First Cavalry Division from Fort Hood, Texas, and the First Infantry Division from Germany -- to Iraq, along with 15,000 National Guard and reserve combat troops from North Carolina, Arkansas, and Washington state. Those additions will result in about 30,000 more troops in Iraq during the first months of 2004 as the new arrivals overlap with others scheduled to go home in a few months.
The revised plan, officials said, will add the two Marine brigades and an unspecified number of reservists from specialized units such as military police, medics, and civil affairs soldiers, swelling the numbers by a further 20,000.
The House Armed Services committee's letter to Rumsfeld said a larger active-duty army is necessary "to reduce the reliance on the Guard and Reserve for those functions that will continue to be needed for the war on terrorism."