US to overhaul beleaguered forces in Iraq

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The Independent US

The Pentagon is sending a retired four-star general to review the military operation in Iraq, amid growing fears among officials that the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan have stretched the existing US force structure almost to breaking point.

The Pentagon is sending a retired four-star general to review the military operation in Iraq, amid growing fears among officials that the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan have stretched the existing US force structure almost to breaking point.

The mission of General Gary Luck, a former commander of American forces in South Korea, follows a stream of alarming news about the effects of the military deployment in Iraq, where no end of the occupation is in sight and US casualties relentlessly increase.

The deaths of nine servicemen on Thursday - seven of them in one roadside bombing in Baghdad - bring the total of US forces killed since the invasion of March 2003 to more than 1,350. A further 10,000 have been wounded, many of them maimed by such bombs. Even more worrying for Pentagon planners, however, are manpower strains that have led to reserve and National Guard units having to serve extended tours in Iraq. These account for 40 per cent of the US force in the country, increased to 150,000 in an attempt to improve security ahead of the 30 January elections.

The extra demands already amount to what critics call a "backdoor draft" of so-called "citizen-soldiers" who never imagined having to spend long periods in the field but now find themselves in key positions. If anything, the burden on them looks set to increase.

According to The Washington Post yesterday, the army wants to change Pentagon policy to enable even heavier reliance on some reserve units. They would be subject to an unlimited number of call-ups that could last for up to 24 months apiece.

In all, the Army Reserve consists of 200,000 men. But in a leaked memo to Pentagon chiefs, written just before Christmas, General James Helmly, the reserve's commander, warned that his men were "degenerating into a broken force" that would be unable to meet commitments if other emergencies arose. As for the National Guard, an official told the Post that its 15 main combat units were "close to tapped out". The strains have not only depressed morale but led to a sharp fall in recruiting by both the reserve and the National Guard. It now looks likely that the 30,000 increase in active duty troops to cope with Iraq will have to be made permanent, at the cost of $3bn (£1.6bn) a year to the army budget.

Apart from American troop levels, General Luck will also focus on the shortcomings of the home-trained Iraqi forces, who US commanders had hoped would be able to provide security for the elections, but have signally failed to do so.

Despite everything, President Bush remains defiantly optimistic, insisting not only that the elections will go ahead as scheduled, but would be "such a credibly hopeful experience for the Iraqi people". Speaking to reporters yesterday, he took strong issue with a bleak assessment this week by Brent Scowcroft, his father's national security adviser, of developments in Iraq - that the elections risked "deepening the conflict" and worsening tensions between the Shia and Sunni populations.

"Quite the opposite," Mr Bush declared.

Equally gloomy was Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser under President Jimmy Carter. "If [the US mission] cannot be changed drastically, it should be terminated," he warned at the same meeting addressed by Mr Scowcroft. It would require 500,000 troops, $500bn and a return of the draft.

The Pentagon is already starting to reshape its $400bn budget to cope with the new demands.

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