Army holds Pentagon to ransom over Iraq

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The Independent US

In a fresh sign of the intense strains placed by the Iraq war on the US military, America's top uniformed army officer has refused to submit his service's budget request for fiscal 2008.

General Pete Schoomaker, chief of staff of the army, said it could not fulfil its mission within the existing financial limits set by Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary.

At the same time, the army has been forced to extend the combat tour of a key infantry brigade in strife-torn al-Anbar province to allow the battle-weary unit that is due to replace it to enjoy the minimum 12-month interval between tours at the front.

The move affects 4,000 men of the 1st Brigade of the 1st Armoured Division, currently based at Ramadi in the heart of the "Sunni Triangle", who will now have to spend an extra six weeks there before returning to their base in Germany in February.

The announcement by the Pentagon yesterday is the latest evidence of how the long war in Iraq and the intensifying conflict in Afghanistan are stretching the army's resources to the limit and beyond. Far from cutting back on Iraq deployment, as the Bush administration had hoped, the Pentagon has had to boost US troop strength in recent months to some 145,000, as sectarian violence has intensified.

No less indicative has been the extraordinary decision by General Schoomaker not to present a budget for the financial year starting in October 2007.

This week, Congress will approve a Pentagon budget for the year starting this October of a total $447bn (£235bn) for defence, including a basic army budget of $98bn, as well as a special $70bn supplementary fund to pay for the two wars, and replace equipment lost or worn out in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But General Schoomaker insists this is far short of what is required. According to the Los Angeles Times yesterday, he wants $139bn for the army in 2007-08 - more than $25bn above the limit set by Mr Rumsfeld - and a 41 per cent increase on the allocation for 2006-07. In the end, he chose to miss the 15 August deadline for submission of a budget.

The Defence Secretary has since agreed to a study group, which is understood to basically agree with Gen Schoomaker. But after years of watching their basic budget requests chipped away by Mr Rumsfeld and various congressional committees, army chiefs are now in little mood to compromise.

The army has a total active-duty strength of 504,000, of whom 400,000 have done at least one tour in either Iraq and Afghanistan, and some 150,000 have done two.

Barring an unlikely improvement in the security situation in Iraq and Afghanistan, such pressures will remain. If funding is not increased, the alternatives are uniformly unattractive. The army could scale back its commitments. If not, commanders admit, it will have to make greater use of the National Guard. A third possibility would be the reintroduction of the draft, but that is flatly opposed by President Bush and Mr Rumsfeld.

* Three Marines will face courts-martial on charges of murdering an Iraqi man in the town of Hamdania. The three were among seven Marines and one Navy serviceman accused of kidnapping and murdering 52-year-old Hashim Ibrahim Awad last April. The other five face preliminary hearings in coming weeks.