May 8, 2006

US holds back troops, mulls broader Iraq force cut

By Will Dunham

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Pentagon announced on Monday it
was putting off next month's scheduled deployment of a
Germany-based Army brigade to Iraq, as officials pondered a
broader cut in the U.S. force in the second half of the year.

The decision to keep the roughly 3,500 soldiers of the 2nd
Brigade of the Army's 1st Infantry Division at their base in
Schweinfurt, Germany, comes as Pentagon leaders work toward a
decision in a few weeks on a blueprint for U.S. troop levels,
defense officials said.

Bryan Whitman, a senior Pentagon spokesman, cautioned
against interpreting this as a harbinger of larger force cuts.

"This is a very narrow decision to hold one brigade and to
give the commanders on the ground additional time to continue
their assessments," Whitman said.

"Obviously, there's been a degree of political progress
that's been made in the last couple of weeks," Whitman added,
noting that Iraq's prime minister designate, Nuri al-Maliki,
appeared close to naming a cabinet.

The combat brigade had been slated this week to start
loading its equipment for transport to Iraq, and the soldiers
had been scheduled to arrive in Iraq in June and assume their
operational responsibilities in July, officials said.

The United States has about 133,000 troops in Iraq. The
decision to hold back this brigade does not immediately cut the
U.S. force, but a reduction would come in July if this unit
does not arrive to replace another one scheduled to rotate home
at that time.


Officials said it was possible this brigade will not deploy
or might simply deploy later than planned.

"This unit is very much ready to go, obviously. So I don't
know that I would make the assumption that they're not going to
go. In fact, they may go in lieu of somebody else, later on,"
said a defense official who asked not to be named because of
the sensitivity of decision-making on troop levels.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has said the United
States should be able to reduce its troop presence in Iraq --
there are about 30,000 fewer now than in December -- as
U.S.-trained Iraqi government security forces assume
responsibility for more territory.

A decision on troop cuts might come in five or six weeks,
the defense official said, also allowing more time to gauge
security conditions amid an insurgency raging more than three
years into the war.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair said earlier on Monday
that Britain expects to make an announcement about cutting the
size of its force in Iraq within the next few weeks. It has
about 8,000 troops in Iraq, mainly in the more peaceful south.

Rumsfeld said last week he expected recommendations from
Army Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, on
future force levels sometime after Iraq's cabinet is named, a
development expected in the coming weeks. Rumsfeld also said
U.S. officials will consult with Maliki's government.

Defense officials previously have mentioned the possibility
of dropping to about 100,000 troops later this year but said
other possibilities included a smaller cut or none at all.

The deployment of another U.S. Army brigade already
designated to rotate into Iraq in the coming months also could
be put on hold pending the larger decision on troop levels,
officials said.

Units designated to deploy include: the 3rd Brigade of the
2nd Infantry Division at Fort Lewis, Washington; the 3rd
Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North
Carolina; the 3rd Brigade of the 25th Infantry Division at
Schofield Barracks, Hawaii; and the 2nd Brigade of the 10th
Mountain Division at Fort Drum, New York.