WASHINGTON — More than 850 soldiers from three National Guard units from Missouri will be among the 20,000 American troops in Iraq serving extended tours of duty.
The Pentagon said Thursday it is extending by three months the tours of some 20,000 American troops in Iraq, giving commanders extra firepower to confront an insurgency that is taking a mounting toll on the U.S.-led coalition.
Missouri’s adjutant general, Brig. Gen. Dennis Shull, said in a press release that Missouri will be extending the stay of more than 850 soldiers from three National Guard units — more National Guardsmen than any other state. At least 23 units nationwide have had their tours extended.
The Missouri units are the 203rd Engineer Battalion with unit locations in Joplin, Fort Leonard Wood, Springfield, Anderson, Clinton, St. Peters, Carthage, Monett and Pierce City; the 2175th Military Police Company with unit locations in St. Clair and Hannibal; and the 1221st Transportation Company with unit locations in Dexter, Trenton, Centertown and Jefferson Barracks.
The state’s National Guardsmen will be required to serve up to 90 days in active military operations and up to 120 days total time extended in addition to their 12 months of service in Iraq.
“Although this extension is not welcome news, I have full confidence that our Missouri Guard soldiers will undertake these added demands in stride,” Shull said in the release. Families of Missouri troops impacted by this announcement are being contacted.
Extension breaks promise to soldiers
The decision, announced by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, breaks a promise to soldiers who were assured when they arrived in Iraq that they would stay no more than one year. By extending their tours of duty by three months, the Pentagon is acknowledging that the insurgency has ruined its plans to reduce the size of the U.S. military presence this spring.
The troops had expected to return home this month after completing 12 months in Iraq.
“We regret having to extend those individuals,” Rumsfeld said, adding that the American public is grateful for their sacrifices. “What they’re doing is important. It’s noble work, and in the end it will be successful.”
Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the 20,000 soldiers are mainly from the 1st Armored Division and the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment. A more detailed breakdown was not immediately announced. Other officials said that about 14,500 soldiers of the 1st Armored Division, which is based in Germany, plus about 3,200 support troops and about 2,800 soldiers of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment from Fort Polk, La., have been told that they will remain in Iraq for another three months instead of coming home this month.
Also included are an unspecified number of soldiers of the 98th Combat Stress Center Medical Team from Fort Lewis, Wash., and the 57th Air Ambulance Company from Fort Bragg, N.C.
Rumsfeld said that about one-quarter of the 20,000 troops being extended are members of the National Guard or Reserve. He did not mention an exact number or identify the Guard or Reserve units. A partial list provided by the Pentagon cited 3,136 National Guard and 1,286 Reserve soldiers from 16 states.
The United States has a total of about 137,000 troops in Iraq now, Rumsfeld said. That number was supposed to have dipped to 115,000 by May, but Rumsfeld said Gen. John Abizaid, the overall commander of the Iraq war, decided he needs to keep the force level at about 135,000 troops.
Some critics have asserted throughout the U.S. occupation of Iraq that the military had too few troops on the ground to stabilize the country and assure its economic and political rebuilding.
Extending tours of soldiers in Iraq is not unprecedented, but it is done with great reluctance because of fears that it will harm soldiers’ morale.
Gen. George Casey, the Army vice chief of staff, told reporters Thursday that he believes these soldiers, while disappointed, accept that their first obligation is to succeed in the mission.
“These are tough times, we are asking a lot of our people and of their families,” Casey said.
Asked whether the disappointment would hurt the soldiers’ performance in Iraq, Casey said, “In most cases, absolutely not.”
Fresh forces would be sent if another extension is ordered
Rumsfeld said that if Abizaid decides that he needs to maintain the same troop strength in Iraq after the 90-day extension runs out, the Pentagon will send fresh forces from the United States or elsewhere.
The troop extensions come at a particularly delicate moment. April has become the deadliest month for U.S. forces in Iraq since they set foot in the country in March 2003. The number of wounded also has skyrocketed.
At a Baghdad news conference Thursday, Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked whether the troop extensions indicate plans for large-scale offensive operations. He did not answer directly, saying the move was deemed necessary given “extremist and terrorist acts that must be dealt with.”
Myers said it has yet to be determined how long the added combat power will be kept in Iraq.
“It will depend on events here on the ground,” he said. “But I think what it shows is our resolve to see this situation through.” Myers was in Baghdad for talks with U.S. and coalition commanders and to meet with L. Paul Bremer, Iraq’s U.S. administrator.
The advantage of keeping soldiers of the 1st Armored and the 2nd Armored Cavalry in Iraq for an extra three months — rather than bringing in an equivalent number from elsewhere — is that these soldiers have unmatched combat experience in Iraq and familiarity with insurgents’ tactics.
The Army is so stretched by its commitments in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Balkans and elsewhere that it has few, if any, forces immediately available to substitute in Iraq for the 1st Armored or 2nd Armored Cavalry.
Also, these units have been heavily involved in one of the most important U.S. military missions there: training thousands of Iraqi security forces. Those Iraqi army and civil defense corps members are central to the Pentagon’s plan for eventually turning over military control to the Iraqis and pulling out U.S. troops.
— Missourian staff writer Laura McNamar contributed to this report