By ANNE FLAHERTY, Associated Press Writer, AP June 19 2007
WASHINGTON - The Army is considering whether it will have to extend the combat tours of troops in Iraq if President Bush opts to maintain the recent buildup of forces through spring 2008.
Acting Army Secretary Pete Geren testified Tuesday that the service is reviewing other options, including relying more heavily on Army reservists or Navy and Air Force personnel, so as not to put more pressure on a stretched active-duty force.
Most soldiers spend 15 months in combat with a guaranteed 12 months home, a rotation plan that has infuriated Democrats because it exceeds the service's goal of giving troops equal time home as in combat. In coming weeks, the Senate will vote on a proposal by Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., that would restrict deployments.
"It's too early to look into the next year, but for the Army we have to begin to plan," Geren told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "We have to look into our options."
Army spokesman Paul Boyce said, "If the future were to require such an option, it would be the last option on the list."
Gen. David Petraeus, Iraq war commander, suggested Sunday that conditions on the ground might not be stable enough by September to justify a drop in force levels, and he predicted stabilizing Iraq could take a decade. Earlier this year, Bush ordered the deployment of some 30,000 additional troops as part of a massive U.S.-led security push around Baghdad and the western Anbar province.
There are about 156,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.
When asked by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., whether maintaining the force buildup would affect soldiers' 15-month combat schedules, Geren said he was unsure and cited "numerous options" available, including a "different utilization of the Guard and Reserve" and relying on the other services for help.
"We're committed to filling the requirements that the combatant commander asks," Geren said. "We have been able to do so up until now, and we will continue to do so."
The Army assessment comes as Democrats say they are already dissatisfied with the existing policy.
"Who was talking for the well being and the health of the soldiers when this requirement was put down?" asked Webb, referring to the 15-month combat tours. After four years of combat, the strategy in Iraq cannot "justify doing this to the soldiers in the Army and the families back here," he said.
Geren also said it "would certainly be valuable" if other departments helped more in rebuilding Iraq.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman said he was surprised during a recent trip to Iraq to see how many soldiers were tasked with "nation-building."
"I wish every American could see what the U.S. Army and others are doing to rebuild the government, the health care system, the education system, to secure the neighborhoods," said Lieberman, I-Conn. "But some of that, in the best of all worlds, should frankly be done by people from other departments of our government."
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Tuesday that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had accepted a request by Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, to "beef up the economic and political sections" of the embassy with more Arabic-language speakers and mid- to senior-level foreign service officers to supplement the existing work force.
"He says he needs these things, we're going to get them for him," McCormack told reporters. "We're going to get him what he needs."
There are currently only 10 U.S. diplomats in Baghdad, including Crocker, who are fluent in both written and spoken Arabic, the State Department says.
Geren said the decision made earlier this year to extend tours from 12 to 15 months was intended to ensure soldiers were guaranteed one year at home. Previously, soldiers deployed for 12-month cycles but were unsure when they would be sent back.
"I felt it was the best of the two tough choices to make. ... That decision I believe was the right one," Geren said.
The Senate panel is expected to approve Bush's nomination of Geren as Army secretary, replacing Francis Harvey who was pushed out amid a scandal on deplorable conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Lawmakers said they also were concerned about the Army's ability to care for soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome and brain injuries.
Geren said the Army is beginning an effort to educate senior military officers on how to identify symptoms. And last week, the Army contracted to hire 200 more mental health professionals, increasing such staff by more than 20 percent.
Despite the hiring push, Geren said it will still be tough to find people who specialize in treatment of the disorder, particularly in rural areas where many military bases are located.
"We have stressed a work force of the medical professionals in the mental health area that was already short and we've stressed it more with deployments," Geren said.
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