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The Star-Ledger June 27, 2003

Coalition troops remain in full force

Large number of soldiers in Iraq accounts for rising number of casualties

By Wayne Wooley

Nearly two months after President Bush announced the end of major combat operations in Iraq, an occupying force of 146,000 troops faces an increasing barrage of deadly attacks and no promise of coming home anytime soon.

Although the Defense Department said more than 130,000 mostly Navy and Air Force personnel have been recalled from the Persian Gulf, the ground force now occupying Iraq is nearly as big as it was on April 9, the day Baghdad fell, according to an analysis of units now deployed.

The bulk of the two Army divisions and one Marine division that formed the backbone of the initial assault into Iraq remain there.

A top Army commander conceded this week that continuing unrest on the streets derailed plans to substitute the 3rd Infantry Division -- the first U.S. unit to reach Baghdad -- with the 1st Armored Division.

"That did not happen because the security situation didn't move as quickly in a direction we thought it would toward stability," Lt. Gen. John Abizaid told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday. "We needed the additional forces."

Both units will remain in Iraq for the time being, he said.

So will the 101st Airborne Division, 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment and 1st Marine Division, all of which also participated in the initial invasion, as well as units that arrived near the end of the attack: the 4th Infantry Division and 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment.

Abizaid, who is expected to win Senate confirmation to replace Gen. Tommy Franks as the leader of the U.S. Central Command, said he is working on plans to rotate at least some of the troops home. He was unable to say, however, how many or how soon.

Although he said he expects relief from as many 30,000 coalition troops, Abizaid said a large number of U.S. forces will remain in Iraq for the foreseeable future.

In the meantime, it's been a rough week for troops in Iraq.

At least six American soldiers, a U.S. Marine and six British troops have been killed this week in separate attacks in areas ranging from suburban Baghdad to Majar al- Kabir in southern Iraq, a region of the country previously considered more hospitable to coalition forces.

That raises to at least 27 the number of Americans killed in hostile fire since Bush announced the conclusion of major combat on May 1.

After three attacks yesterday killed two U.S. soldiers and injured 10 others, and two other American soldiers were reported seized north of Baghdad, an Army spokesman in Iraq described this week's violence as a "spike" and not a trend.

Military analysts say there are too many variables at work to determine whether that assessment is accurate.

"It's entirely possible it will all go away in a couple of days," said John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org, a defense think tank in Virginia. "And it's entirely possible you ain't seen nothing yet."

Pike said the sheer number of coalition troops on the ground makes casualties inevitable.

"If you figure how many American troops are over there and figure how many assault weapons are in the hands of young Iraqi men with no air conditioning and no jobs, you can imagine the possibilities," he said.

Defense analysts say attacks on coalition forces will continue until the bulk of Iraqis believe they control their own destiny.

"We don't have a lot of time before things turn really nasty," said Timothy Lomperis, a former Army intelligence officer in Vietnam who served as an instructor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. "This is like Northern Ireland for us right now."

Former Army intelligence officer and author Ralph Peters believes many of the casualties are a direct result of the Pentagon's efforts to use more aggressive patrols to flush out supporters of Saddam Hussein's regime. He believes the escalation in the violence may actually indicate the tide is turning and order is coming.

"It's painful at the moment, getting all the bad guys out," Peters said. "But it's better to pay the butcher up front."

That does not make it any easier for the troops, some of whom deployed for war before Christmas, fought a bitter campaign and now swelter in dusty places where recognizing friend from foe is as difficult as ever.

Capt. Felix Almaguer, a 29-year-old intelligence officer who grew up in Summit, has sent his family e-mails describing how demoralized troops have become each time plans to return home are delayed.

In late April, Almaguer told his cousin, Lori Tarke of Mountainside, that he expected to be home in June. Now, the date he gives is the end of the summer. His latest e- mails described constant tensions in Fallujah, west of Baghdad, where his unit, the 3rd Infantry Division, was recently sent to keep order.

"They just keep wondering when they're going to get relieved," Tarke said. "Because they did such a good job (the Army) made them part of this special task force. I'm wondering what would have happened had they did a bad job."

Wayne Woolley covers the military. He can be reached at wwool ley@starledger.com or (973) 392-1559.


Copyright 2003, The Star-Ledger