Uncertainty Clouds U.S. Troop Levels in Iraq

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There are currently about 140,000 U.S. military personnel serving in Iraq. Hopes earlier this year were that some might be able to return home soon as Iraqi troops take up security tasks. But now there are doubts of an overall drawdown.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From NPR News, this is DAY TO DAY, I'm Madeleine Brand. Coming up, there are some new economic numbers out today. Why should you care?

First this. Every day we hear stories of violent attacks in Baghdad, but even to Iraq's war-weary population, yesterday stood out. Car bombs and rocket and mortar attacks targeted shops and apartment buildings in Baghdad's Shiite neighborhoods. Rescue workers were still pulling victims from the rubble today. Authorities say more than 60 people were killed, many more wounded.

It's been a week of heavy carnage there, with hundreds dead in Baghdad alone. This is despite an increased effort by U.S. and Iraqi forces to secure the capital. Earlier this week, General Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, suggested a possible reduction in the American role there.

General GEORGE CASEY (U.S. Army): I can see over the next 12 to 18 months, I can see the Iraqi security forces progressing to a point where they can take on the security responsibilities for the country with very little coalition support.

BRAND: What is the current level of American troops in Iraq, and when can they possibly expect to come home? I'm joined now by NPR Pentagon correspondent John Hendren. And John, remind us how many U.S. troops are currently stationed in Iraq.

JOHN HENDREN reporting:

There are about 140,000 right now in Iraq, and that's up from 127,000 in July. It's down from the initial invasion force of 225,000 in 2003, and it's also down from December, when there were about 160,000. This was before the election.

BRAND: So 140,000. But still it seems like there was an expectation that the troop levels would be going even further lower and certainly not going up from earlier in the year. Let's listen to something General Casey told you back in February.

Gen. CASEY: We're making very good progress with both the military and the police. The political process and situation has to continue to make progress, and then the security forces have to continue to progress. Those two things happen, we have some good possibilities for further reductions over the course of the year.

BRAND: So further reductions over the course of the year. It's now September. Why isn't the number lower now?

HENDREN: Well, things have really changed since he said that in February, and there has become an urgent need to redistribute troops to Baghdad. There was a quarterly Pentagon report that was just released today, and it really explains what the problem is. Weekly attacks are up 15 percent. Iraqi casualties are up 51 percent, mostly in Baghdad. Violence has escalated notably in the capital, but it has also increased in Basra, southwestern Diyala province, and in Mosul and Kirkuk.

BRAND: So when General Casey said this week that he can see troops coming home between - in 12 to 18 months, is there any expectation there at the Pentagon that that will actually happen?

HENDREN: I don't think anyone expects it to happen this year at all. That's almost certain. But next year there are prospects for a troop reduction, possibly as early as this spring. That is when General Casey seems to make his annual assessment as to how many troops they're going to need.

BRAND: And what about tours of duty? Are they also being extended?

HENDREN: They are for this 172nd striker brigade from Alaska. These are people who were on their way home after a year of service and were told, no, you're going to stay for four months and you're going to stay in Baghdad.

BRAND: And what's the reaction among the rank and file? Are they starting to grumble?

HENDREN: Well, I was there once before when a unit got extended, and let me tell you, they're not happy when that happens, because their expectations for going home are set. Overall, though, these people seem to be accustomed to the fact that they're going to be doing routine, year-long tours. It's the extensions that really kill them.

BRAND: NPR Pentagon correspondent John Hendren. Thank you, John.

HENDREN: Thank you.

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