US sends more combat troops to Iraq ahead of referendum

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The Independent Online

Around 2,000 paratroopers from the Airborne Division are preparing to be in position in time for October's constitutional referendum which will be followed by national elections. Other "warfighting" units have been put on alert for rapid deployment.

The Independent has learnt that the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 10th Mountain Division is also on its way to Iraq to replace a Louisiana National Guard unit. National Guardsmen are often referred to as "weekend warriors" because of their former slogan "one weekend a month, two weeks a year".

The extra forces will raise the number of US troops from around 138,000 to 160,000 and will be perceived as delaying America's exit strategy for Iraq which was due to begin with the new constitution.

President George Bush stressed in a speech at the Idaho Centre of National Guards yesterday that US troops would only be brought home when Iraq was ready for it. "An immediate withdrawal of our troops in Iraq or the broader Middle East, as some have called for, would only embolden the terrorists and create a staging-ground to launch more attacks against America and free nations," he said.

A senior US officer, Major-General Douglas E Lute, said during a visit to London that it was "very difficult" to deny the "perception of occupation" while there were 150,000-plus foreign troops in Iraq.

However constitutional talks remain bogged down in sectarian acrimony and violence continues unabated. Yesterday around 100 insurgents, armed with rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and assault rifles, carried out a series of synchronised raids on police posts in the western suburbs of the capital. At least eight people, three of them civilians, were killed in the daylight attacks and dozens of security force vehicles were burned.

Sunni insurgent groups have vowed to escalate the violence in reaction to the apparent intention of Shia and Kurdish politicians in the National Assembly to push through the draft constitution against the declared opposition of Sunni factions.

In another worrying development for the US-British coalition, followers of the militant Shia cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, joined a Sunni demonstration against the constitution at Hawja, north of Baghdad. Sadr, who runs the Mehdi Army which has remained heavily armed despite a supposed disarmament exercise last year, has maintained links with several Sunni groups in an alliance against the proposed federal structure of the country's future government.

Sunnis maintain that federalism is a pretext for the Kurdish and Shia groups to carve up the oil-rich north and south of the country. Sadr's group, with its power base in the relatively resource-poor central Iraq has also complained that it is being sidelined.

The extra US troops are being sent in response to requests by the two senior US commanders in Iraq, General John Abizaid and General George Casey Jr.

According to US and British military sources, some of the remaining National Guard and reserve units will withdraw to policing duties, leaving the "warfighting" to forces carry out proactive operations against known Sunni insurgent strongholds in central and western Iraq.

General Peter Schoomaker, the US Army's chief of staff, has said that the US may have to keep more than 100,000 troops in Iraq for the next four years - a view which seems to contradict the White House view of a gradual disengagement.

The US believes Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qa'ida in Iraq, and his associates would not want to die there but would seek other places of refuge and prepare for new battles.

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