US troops may stay in Iraq indefinitely.
The US commander in charge of all forces in Iraq said on Thursday American troops might not be brought home once international peacekeepers are deployed to the war-torn country, a reversal that means 150,000 US soldiers may stay in Iraq indefinitely.
General John Abizaid, the new head of US central command, said foreign troops and indigenous Iraqi forces would gradually take over internal security duties from American soldiers, but added US troops would then be redeployed for a "more aggressive posture on external duties", such as securing borders.
"It depends on the security situation," Gen Abizaid said of the role of foreign peacekeepers. "It doesn't necessarily mean that additional foreign troops would cause a corresponding drawdown of American forces."
The Cencom chief's comments are a clear break from previous Pentagon statements on the status of American deployments. General John Keane, the acting chief of staff of the US army, told a congressional hearing last month that a Polish-led division in southern Iraq would replace 9,000 US marines this fall, and that once another foreign division arrived - the US has contacted India, Pakistan and Turkey about a division-sized force - four brigades, or approximately 20,000 troops, from the US army would be replaced.
"I believe that that's exactly the purpose of getting foreign troops in," said Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy defence secretary, when asked at the same congressional hearing if American forces would be reduced when foreign troops arrived. "We are trying to get other people to fill in for us. We're trying to get Iraqis to fill in for us."
Donald Rumsfeld, defence secretary, has tried to remain circumspect about the length and number of US troops deployed in Iraq, saying the Pentagon must constantly re-evaluate the security situation before deciding on the number of US troops to return to home bases and when they will leave.
He repeated that stance on Thursday, saying: "Trying to look ahead and anticipate and predict all of that is very difficult."
But he also acknowledged Gen Abizaid would have the most important say in US troop presence. "The level of US forces will be totally a function of the general's recommendations to the president and to me."
The level of US troop strength in Iraq has become highly politicised in recent weeks, with some conservative lawmakers, such as the influential Republican Senator John McCain, calling for additional deployments. At the same time, several Democratic senators - and a handful of Republicans - have taken the Pentagon to task over the rising costs of the war, which is directly linked to force size.
Before the war, the Pentagon repeatedly tried to play down expectations that US forces would be forced to stay in Iraq in great numbers for a long period of time.
When General Eric Shinseki, then the Army's chief of staff, told a congressional hearing before the war that it would take "several hundred thousand" troops to stabilise Iraq, Mr Wolfowitz publicly contradicted him, calling the estimate "wildly off the mark".
[Source: Financial Times, 21Aug03]
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