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Stretched US Army sending units back early to Iraq

US Army soldiers from Hawaii in northern Iraq last week. The unit will stay 46 days longer than planned. (Andy Dunaway/US Air Force)

WASHINGTON -- For just the second time since the war began, the Army is sending large units back to Iraq without giving them at least a year at home, defense officials said yesterday.

The move signaled how stretched the US fighting force has become.

A combat brigade from New York and a Texas headquarters unit will return to Iraq this summer in order to maintain through August the military buildup President Bush announced earlier this year. Overall, the Pentagon announced, 7,000 troops will be going to Iraq in the coming months as part of the effort to keep 20 brigades in the country to help bolster the Baghdad security plan. A brigade is roughly 3,000 soldiers.

The Army will try not to shorten the troops' US time, "but in this case we had to," said a senior Army official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "Obviously right now the Army is stretched," the official said.

The Fourth Infantry Division headquarters unit from Fort Hood, Texas, will return to Iraq after a little more than seven months at home -- the largest departure to date from the Army's goal of giving units at least a year's rest after every year deployed. The First Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division, based at Fort Drum, N.Y., will go back to Iraq after 10 1/2 months at home.

The only other major unit to spend less than one year at home was the Georgia-based Third Brigade of the Third Infantry Division, which returned to Iraq 48 days short of a year and is there now, according to the Army.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said that the Texas unit's 81 - day shortfall in rest time "is not insignificant."

"There's only so many division headquarters," he said. "This is a military that is in conflict. We're obviously using a significant portion of the combat units of the force. And it's a reflection of the realities that exist right now."

Whitman said the latest deployment orders released yesterday would also require the Hawaii-based 25th Infantry Division Headquarters unit to stay in Iraq for about 46 days longer than its planned year.

Defense officials and military leaders disagreed last week over how long it would take to determine if the latest buildup -- which added five brigades to what had been a fairly consistent level of 15 brigades in Iraq -- is working.

Major General William B. Caldwell, the military's chief spokesman in Iraq, said commanders won't know until at least autumn when they can begin to bring troop levels back down. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told a congressional committee that he was disturbed to hear that comment, and he said commanders should be able to make the evaluation by summer.

So far, two of the five Army brigades planned for the buildup are in Baghdad, and a third is moving in . All five will be there in June.

The Army's stated goal is to give active-duty soldiers two years at home between overseas combat tours. But that has been largely impossible because the Army does not have enough brigades to meet the demands of simultaneous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The latest buildup increased the demands, but until recently the Army had been able to give units at least a year break.

Military leaders say the 12 months are needed so the units can rest and then become adequately equipped to go back.