Some 1,000 soldiers from the Army’s 1st Cavalry Headquarters in Baghdad could be asked to stay up to 23 days longer and some 600 Marines from the II Marine Expeditionary Force in Anbar province could be extended up to 79 days, according to defense officials.
Gen. Raymond Odierno said current military thinking is to maintain force levels between 110,000 and 120,000 troops for the two months after the January election but ahead of a massive U.S. force reduction expected before next fall.
“What we’ll do is we’ll hold that in place through the elections and about 60 days after the elections,” he told Pentagon reporters today. “And depending on how that goes, it’s peaceful, and then we will make a determination of coming down to the 50,000-transition force by the first of September.”
Odierno said he would prefer extending for a few weeks the deployments of soldiers already in Iraq over bringing in new troops during the critical post-election phase.
“What I don’t want to do is bring in a brand new division headquarters, for example, for the elections,” he said, noting that the troops subject to the extension are the exception, not the rule. “I just want to wait till a couple weeks after the elections.”
The Marine extension, he said, is necessitated by the need for extra time to get equipment and materiel from the country as the Marine mission in Iraq comes to a close.
The announcement of possible deployment extensions comes a day after Odierno told lawmakers on Capitol Hill that the United States may be able to draw down troop levels in Iraq quicker than expected if progress there continues.
About 122,000 military members are deployed in Iraq now, and an agreement that took effect in January calls for U.S. troops to cease combat operations and reduce their presence in Iraq to 50,000 by Aug. 31, 2010. All U.S. combat forces are scheduled to be out of the country by Dec. 31, 2011.
Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell today said the drawdown of forces hinges on having a force large enough to support successful elections in Iraq.
“Our troop drawdown is very much predicated on having enough forces there to have a successful election and then have a level of security in the intervening weeks where there would be a transition in power throughout Iraq,” he told the cable news network MSNBC.
A successful election and peaceful transition of power would be a coup for the Iraqi government, which Odierno said continues to move forward.
“Every day that goes by, it becomes less and less likely that some sequel to events would cause the government to fail,” he said, referring to Baghdad’s progress. “You know, I think every time we move forward, every day, it becomes less and less likely.
“That’s why I think the elections are important, because they will go through what we hope to be peaceful elections, the seating of a new government peacefully,” he added. “And I think that will help to really stabilize the institutions as derived from their own constitution.”