Morale crisis as troops' return is delayed

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Indy Politics

The Pentagon is facing a crisis of morale among American troops in Iraq after thousands of frontline infantry forces were told they would have to stay in the country, despite having been promised they would return home at the end of this month.

The delay reflects the difficulty the US is encountering in persuading countries with well-equipped militaries to help with peace-keeping operations directed by Washington, after a war whose legality and justification is increasingly contested.

Announcement of the delayed return was a nasty surprise for about 9,000 men and women of the 3rd Infantry division, some of whom have been in the Gulf region since September. Units of the 3rd Infantry were the first into the country and led the attack on Baghdad. The division suffered 36 deaths in the war, more than any other US unit.

The soldiers, fed up with being deployed in stifling summer heat among a population which wants them out, had been led to believe they would be rotated out of Iraq before August. But Major General Buford Blount, their commanding officer told them they would have to stay, "due to the uncertainty of the situation in Iraq", and the recent increase in attacks on US troops - now at up to 25 a day.

Sergeant Chris Grisham, a military intelligence officer with the 3rd Infantry, told Reuters: "We were told three times we would be going home in a couple of months. It is not a good time to announce this. We are demotivated."

At the root of the problem is overstretch of the US military. The US has managed to persuade some allies to help. Poland will contribute 2,300 soldiers to a brigade that will include units from Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and Lithuania. Troops from Ukraine, Spain, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador and Nicaragua will form a second brigade.

But several countries have refused. India says it will not send soldiers, and the French President, Jacques Chirac, a leading opponent of the war, declared yesterday that the dispatch of French soldiers to Iraq "cannot be imagined in the current context". Events are bearing out the warning of General Eric Shinseki, the former army chief of staff, when he stepped down last month, of the danger of operating "a 12-division strategy with a 10-division army".