US defense secretary extends tours for US Army troops

AP , WASHINGTON

Fri, Apr 13, 2007 - Page 1

Stretched thin by four years of war, the US Army is adding three months to the standard yearlong tour for all active-duty soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, an extraordinary step aimed at maintaining the troop buildup in Baghdad.

The change, which was announced on Wednesday by US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, is the latest blow to an all-volunteer Army that has been given ever-shorter periods of rest and retraining at home between overseas deployments.

Rather than continue to shrink the at-home intervals to a point that might compromise soldiers' preparedness for combat, Gates chose to lengthen combat tours to buy time for units newly returned from battle. The longer tours will affect about 100,000 soldiers currently in Iraq and Afghanistan, plus untold thousands more who deploy later. It does not affect the Marine Corps or the National Guard or Reserve.

"Our forces are stretched; there's no question about that," Gates said.

The extended tours are a price the Army must pay to sustain the troop buildup that US President George W. Bush ordered in January as part of his rejigged strategy for stabilizing Baghdad and averting a US defeat. Troop levels are being boosted from 15 brigades to 20 brigades, and in order to keep that up beyond summer the Army faced harsh choices: Either send units to Iraq with less than 12 months at home or extend tours.

The decision also underscores the political cost the administration has had to pay in order to keep alive its hope that higher troop levels in Iraq, combined with a push for Iraqi political reconciliation, finally will produce the stability in Baghdad that experts say is needed before US troops can begin going home.

In recent days, the Pentagon has notified National Guard brigades from four states that they are in line to deploy to Iraq for a second time, eliciting complaints from governors.

Also, the Pentagon poured more than US$1 billion into bonuses last year to keep soldiers and Marines in the military in the face of an unpopular war.

At a news conference in the military's Pentagon headquarters, Gates said it was too early to estimate how long the troop buildup would last, but his new policy would give the Pentagon the capability to maintain the higher force levels until next April. Democrats in Congress, and some Republicans, oppose the buildup and are trying to force Bush to change course.

In January, the administration indicated the buildup might begin to be reversed sometime later this year.