WASHINGTON — The Pentagon has ordered about 6,500 soldiers in Iraq to extend their tours, the first step the military has taken to increase its combat power there in preparation for the January elections, senior Defense Department officials said Friday.
About 3,500 members of the 2nd Brigade of the 1st Cavalry Division will stay in Iraq two months longer than initially ordered, and about 3,000 soldiers assigned to headquarters and support units of the 1st Infantry Division will have their tours extended by 2 1/2 weeks.
While Pentagon officials and military officers previously had left open the possibility that additional troops would be required to battle a tenacious insurgency ahead of the elections, they had also expressed hopes that new Iraqi security forces or foreign units might fill the need. The decision to extend the stay of American forces in Iraq at a time when replacement troops also are arriving means a significant increase in the overall American combat presence for the first time since the summer.
No other extensions have been approved, and no units now preparing for Iraq duty have been ordered to speed up their departure, according to Pentagon and military officials.
Senior Defense Department officials said they have considered plans that would allow the American military in Iraq to quickly increase its forces by as many as three brigades — as many as 15,000 troops, the combat power of a traditional Army division — but that no steps have been taken other than the extensions discussed Friday.
Under the extension orders, which have been approved by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, the soldiers whose departures are delayed will still leave Iraq for their home bases before the 12-month deployment limit promised by the Army, as the units had initially been given assignments of less than a year.
If Gen. John P. Abizaid, commander of American forces in the Middle East, requests even more troops, it is possible that the 3rd Infantry Division, which led the drive for Baghdad during the war and is set to return to Iraq in January, could speed the arrival of some combat units, officials said. Other options also are under consideration.
The order was good news for about 3,000 members of the 42nd Infantry Division of the New York National Guard, based in Troy. Those soldiers are to replace the headquarters units of the 1st Infantry Division, whose stay in Iraq is being extended, and the departure for Iraq of those 42nd Infantry Division soldiers is to be delayed by up to 60 days, allowing many to spend the holiday season at home.
Their slowed departure is necessary because there will be no living space or equipment for those members of the 42nd Division until the 1st Infantry Division soldiers leave. While the additional time will allow for more training, two senior Defense Department officials said the delay was a matter of logistics and infrastructure, and not a reflection on readiness of those New York National Guard soldiers.
The Islamic holy season of Ramadan, which began this month, has already prompted a 25 percent increase in daily attacks, according to Pentagon officials. But these officials said they had seen no indication yet of a major insurgent offensive like the one a year ago. But military commanders say they must prepare for a guerrilla offensive that could come in November or December, as voter registration gets under way in earnest, or for attacks timed to the elections in January.
Pentagon and military officials said commanders already were planning to take advantage of the overlap of arriving and departing soldiers around the time of the elections, as that offers a natural, if temporary, increase in troop strength in certain areas of Iraq. The number of American troops in Iraq has averaged about 138,000 since the summer.
The Army has previously had to extend deployments for soldiers in Iraq, causing public complaints from some soldiers and some oftheir families.
The first extension was for some troops of the 3rd Infantry Division after the end of major combat operations. The second was earlier this year, when the 1st Armored Division had its year-long tour extended by 90 days. The division was sent south from Baghdad to put down the first uprising of a militia loyal to the rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Abizaid, said one senior Defense Department official, "wanted the most experienced forces available to us" as the election approached. Time already spent in Iraq has allowed those troops to gain combat experience and to develop important ties with Iraqi leaders and the local population that cannot be immediately replaced by arriving forces, the official said.
Military officers in Baghdad said Friday that soldiers of the 2nd Brigade of the 1st Cavalry Division had already been informed of the decision to delay their mid-November departure until mid-January. The 1st Cavalry is responsible for security in Baghdad, including the Sadr City district that is a center of Shiite unrest. Senior officials described the 2nd Brigade as "a very seasoned force" that would serve as an "operational reserve" and quick-reaction force during its two-month extension.
The headquarters units of the 1st Infantry Division will depart on Feb. 14 instead of Jan. 27. The division is deployed north of the Iraqi capital in restive Sunni Muslim communities, including Samarra, Balad and Baquba.
In the previous troop rotation this year, 250,000 American soldiers changed places in Iraq in the largest shift of troops since World War II. While successful, the fast rotation put a huge strain on the military's air and sea transportation system, on temporary deployment bases in Kuwait and on the Iraqi road system. Military officials decided to spread the new round of troop replacements over a longer period, with the bulk arriving and departing between this fall and spring 2005.
To make that new, longer rotation timetable work, some units were scheduled for only 10 months in Iraq, including those now scheduled for extension.