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Troop rotations in Iraq spur security safeguards

Concerns raised that turnover will present new targets

WASHINGTON -- Even with the recent reduction in attacks on US forces in Iraq, war planners are eyeing stepped-up air patrols and other security measures to safely rotate fresh troops into the country early next year out of fear the massive turnover will give guerrillas a new set of potential targets, according to defense officials.


More than 250,000 troops will take to the roads in convoys and be flown in and out of the country in the first four months of 2004, along with an estimated 600,000 tons of equipment, the Pentagon predicts. The movement increases the chances for a spike in attacks from insurgents armed with missiles, rockets, and roadside bombs, the officials said.

"This upcoming rotation of troops is unique for several reasons," said a statement from the US Transportation Command at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois. "First, we are rotating entire units into and out of the theater of operations rather than only moving individual troops as in past operations. Second, the entire period to complete this rotation of forces is short -- just 4 months."

While taking steps to minimize the danger, US Central Command is also working to ensure there is a sufficient overlap between current forces and their replacements so that some of the hard-fought experience and personal contacts forged with Iraqis can be passed on to the new arrivals, according to the officials. But they acknowledge that some expertise will be lost in the changeover.

As part of the plan, air crews would be on alert to protect troops during the rotation. Officials declined to provide other details on how they would enhance security. Nor did they say how they would stagger exit and entry routes for columns of armored vehicles and trucks and helicopters heading to transportation hubs across Iraq or in neighboring Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, where aircraft and ships will ferry soldiers home and bring in new forces.

"Force protection of our troops continues to be paramount and is a significant part of our transportation planning," the Transportation Command said. "We do not discuss details of our force protection plans."

There are currently 130,000 US troops in Iraq, and the Pentagon plans nearly a wholesale replacement, swapping out troops that have been in the country for up to a year and replacing them with new units. As a result, all units will have to leave their secure posts en masse while replacements -- including a higher percentage of reserve soldiers -- take their places.

"This will be the biggest movement of troops since the Korean War," said retired Army Lieutenant General Daniel Christman, the Army's chief war planner during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. "Almost every unit will be swapped out. This has the potential to be a strategic seam if it is not very carefully planned. The question is how do we avoid a seam in the fight when we are moving 300,000 troops in and out."

Pentagon officials say Army Chief of Staff General Peter Schoomaker has expressed concern about the rotation strategy in recent months, contending in closed-door meetings that if it is not handled correctly, the early months of next year could see a dramatic increase in bloodshed.

While the insurgents are on the receiving end of a stepped-up US-led counteroffensive -- the capture of Saddam Hussein on Dec. 13 has led commanders to some of the financiers and coordinators of the resistance -- intelligence specialists predict that the remaining guerrilla forces might be lying in wait to take advantage of the planned troop rotation.

"What I think is not well understood is the terrorists' plan three, six, nine months in advance," said retired Army General George Joulwan, who commanded NATO forces in the Balkans in the mid-1990s. "They rehearse, plan, and look for vulnerabilities. Very seldom is it haphazard."

"When your forces are withdrawing they are the most vulnerable," added Ivan Eland, a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Oakland, Calif. "There are going to be more convoys out there to hit. The bases are fortified so [the insurgents will] get them when they are going someplace."

Another worry as the military prepares for the next few months is the likely loss of experience as hardened veterans of Iraq are replaced with new troops.

"There will be some overlap of forces in order for the expertise and experience of those that are there to be passed on to those arriving," Marine Corps Captain Bruce Frame, a Central Command spokesman, said yesterday. "A lot of them were there a year."

While some of the new arrivals were involved in the initial invasion last spring, "the environment in that country has changed signficantly from all-out combat operations to nation-building," Frame said.

"They have built relationships with local people and you are going to have a higher Reserve and National Guard contingent that is not as experienced," said Eland. "You have different people on the ground and it impacts the personal relationships with local officials."

Christman noted that "overlap and continuity of operations are needed so that these thousands of contacts and local intelligence networks are not thrown away."

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