Ann Scott Tyson

More Boots on the Ground

Amid a spike in violence in Iraqi cities coinciding with the Fallujah offensive, the U.S. military is now planning to boost combat forces to secure the country for elections in January.

The U.S. is likely to expand the force by thousands of GIs in coming weeks by delaying the departure of more experienced units from Iraq as fresh troops rotate in, military officials say.

The overlap would create a temporary surge in American forces – which now number 141,000 in Iraq – to cope with an expected wave of insurgent attacks aimed at disrupting the polling. More U.S. troops are required as Iraqi security forces remain highly vulnerable to attacks and intimidation. This was underscored by a rash of insurgent strikes on police stations in Mosul, Baqubah and other cities in the past week, when attacks nationwide rose to 50 percent higher than the average in recent months.

Some U.S. military officials have long argued that the United States cannot win the war in Iraq without committing tens of thousands more troops. Others contend that more troops would simply present more targets, and the U.S. military should scale back and let Iraqis contend with much of the violence.

In reality, the U.S. cannot substantially increase ground forces in Iraq for the long term without accepting risk in other parts of the world or making Iraq tours longer or closer together – a step sure to lower morale. "I'm committed to providing the troops that are requested, but I can't promise more than I've got," the Army chief of staff, Gen. Peter Schoomaker, told a Congressional hearing Wednesday in which military service chiefs detailed soaring demands on manpower and equipment.

"The demand on the force has increased exponentially," the Marine Corps commandant, Gen. Michael Hagee, told the House Armed Services Committee, saying Marines now spend about twice as much time deployed as two years ago.

Decisions are expected soon on extending specific units in Iraq, and on the possibility of deploying others early from bases in the U.S., according to senior military officials. In October, the military ordered some 6,500 troops to delay their departure from Iraq.

"There is ample opportunity" to increase troop levels by overlapping new arrivals with others whose tours would be extended as large units of 20,000 to 30,000 troops rotate, says a senior U.S. military official in Baghdad. But a larger increase could run into constraints – the current limits of basing and support services.

The string of U.S.-led military offensives on insurgent-held cities across Iraq since August has underscored the necessity for more American troops as well as elite Iraqi commando units. They're needed to step in for struggling local Iraqi security forces that are frequently unwilling or unable to fight off insurgents who threaten them and their families.

"When you take an area that has a stronghold of insurgents and you have to build the Iraqi police force from that population, you set yourself up potentially for failure if you don't have some type of moderating force," says Brig. Gen. Erv Lessel, deputy director for operations of Multinational Forces-Iraq.

To ensure that recaptured cities such as Fallujah and Samarra do not fall back under insurgent control, U.S. commanders are having to commit additional forces to maintaining a presence there, both with U.S. troops and non-local Iraqi forces such as Iraqi National Guard (ING) units from outside areas.

Indeed, in recent weeks U.S. commanders have pushed thousands of additional soldiers and Marines into trouble spots in the Sunni triangle such as Fallujah, Samarra, Ramadi and most recently the northern city of Mosul.

Samarra, for example, had no coalition presence prior to a major offensive in October to root out some 400 insurgents, but now 500 U.S. troops and 500 Iraqi forces are stationed there. Even then, insurgent attacks killed 17 Iraqi police in the city on Nov. 6, as daily strikes in the region tripled.

In Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province, the U.S. military doubled its forces recently from one to two battalions, and in recent days has engaged in heavy clashes with insurgents including some who fled from nearby Fallujah. U.S. Marine commanders say they "control" Ramadi, a city of 450,000 people, but have not "cleared" it of insurgents. The increase in troops was needed in part because local Iraqi police and Iraqi National Guard (ING) units were ineffective, if not complicit with insurgents.

"Many ING and IP posts, compounds, and facilities have been blown up or handed over to the insurgents with nary a shot being fired. [There is] much acquiescence in the face of the murder and intimidation campaign," says a senior official of the 1st Marine Division, which oversees Anbar Province.

In Mosul, an estimated 400 insurgents took advantage of a drop in coalition presence during the Fallujah offensive to take over a dozen police stations, burning several of them as well as provincial governor's residence. City police "walked off their posts" and became "completely ineffective," U.S. military officials say. The Mosul police chief was fired.

To quell the violence, U.S. and Iraqi commanders had to impose a curfew, close bridges into the city, and call in two battalions of outside Iraqi forces – a commando unit from Baghdad and Kurdish ING battalion – as well as an additional U.S. infantry battalion from Fallujah. The U.S. strategy in Iraq envisions a growing role for Iraqi security forces, whose ranks are expected to grow from the current 110,000 to more than 150,000 by late January, when elections are scheduled. Yet so far, only a handful of elite Iraqi units have proven highly reliable, while the effectiveness of the bulk of local Iraqi forces remains uneven.

Iraqi commando units such as the 36th commando battalion have performed well in Najaf, Samarra, and Fallujah, U.S. military officials say, yet these forces currently only number about 2,400, including the Iraqi Intervention Force and Special Operations Force. Iraq's Ministry of Interior now plans to add a new commando battalion.

"[There] is a recognition that [Iraqi commando units] are very, very capable and a desire to stand up more of them ... because you can move them around the country and apply them where you need to work with local police forces," says General Lessel. "Everyone realizes that the real key to long term success and the biggest challenge is the Iraqi police," he says.

Orders Refused

Army commanders moved gingerly on Sunday to address a rare and serious case of a U.S. military unit defying orders in a combat zone, seeking to check a disciplinary breakdown while addressing safety concerns common among troops tested daily in ambushes on the roads of Iraq.

Eighteen soldiers of a South Carolina Reserve unit are under formal investigation, five of whom have been suspended from duty and temporarily reassigned to other units, for allegedly refusing a risky mission to deliver fuel last week, according to military officials.

The incident, unfolding amid an escalation of violence and troop deaths and following other disciplinary crises such as the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, comes at a sensitive political juncture as the war in Iraq continues to dominate the U.S. presidential campaign.

Above all, the case casts a stark light on problems faced by U.S. ground troops in Iraq: Shortages of armored protection, overtaxed National Guard and Reserve units, and increasingly sophisticated attacks by insurgents on supply convoys manned by logistics soldiers with relatively little combat training.

It also underscores the danger for the military that such conditions will produce troubling, if isolated, breakdowns in discipline. In many respects, it's a classic illustration of the delicate line commanders must walk between enforcing order necessary to accomplish the mission while minimizing risks to soldiers' lives.

"This bears all the indications of a unit that has some discipline problems or morale or leadership problems," says a senior Army lawyer on condition of anonymity. "There's a systemic problem, and you don't want to show everyone in theater a harsh response, because that could have a devastating impact."

How U.S. commanders handle the case, which has captured headlines at home and abroad in recent days, "will set a tone throughout the entire unit" as soldiers gauge whether their comrades are treated fairly, says Jeff McCausland, former dean of the U.S. Army War College and now director of the Leadership in Conflict Initiative at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa.

Still, in this case, military lawyers say, some of the soldiers, all from the South Carolina Army Reserves' 343rd Quartermaster Company, appear to have clearly crossed a line. "[The refusal] is pretty unconscionable," says the senior Army lawyer. "This doesn't even come close to being an illegal order."

It was one of the largest-scale incidents he recalled of a unit refusing to obey orders in wartime since 1990, when 67 soldiers from the Louisiana National Guard's 256th Infantry Brigade went AWOL from Fort Hood, Texas, during preparations for deployment to the Persian Gulf. Under military law, soldiers who willfully disobey lawful orders of superior officers in wartime can face maximum penalties of court martial and death.

Still, the military has acknowledged that some of the soldiers who refused to man a fuel convoy from Tallil to Taji south of Baghdad on Oct. 13 raised "valid" concerns, which lawyers say could mitigate their punishment if they cast doubt on the reasonableness of the order. Indeed, senior commanders have ordered the entire 120-man 343rd Quartermaster Company to "stand down" to conduct maintenance and retraining.

"The 343 QM has ceased normal operations," says Capt. Cathy Wilkinson of the 13th Corps Support Command, which oversees the company. "The command is evaluating which vehicles require armoring [consisting of steel plates which have been designed, fabricated and installed by the 13th COSCOM soldiers] and will add armor to those vehicles as well as do a period of retraining and recertification on their mission," she said via e-mail.

Brig. Gen. James Chambers, COSCOM commander, said the investigation would last 10 to 14 days. He denied assertions reported by families of 343rd soldiers that the convoy in question carried contaminated fuel or would have lacked armed escort. He said all soldiers have adequate body armor and have trained in convoy live fire exercises, and military mechanics are fitting steel plating on supply trucks. "I can't think of anything we're not doing now," he told a Baghdad press conference.

Yet a soldier with the 343rd based in Rock Hill, S.C., told the Monitor that none of the unit's vehicles – including tractor trailers, tankers, and Humvees – had armor or mounted guns when the unit deployed to Iraq last December. Apart from a 2 1/2-month predeployment course, the soldiers' training had focused on skills such as testing fuel for contamination and running water purification systems, rather than combat tasks, he said.

Army Reserve Chief Lt. Gen. James Helmly says the Army is upgrading reserve forces equipment and increasing training on "warrior skills" such as marksmanship, battle drills and land navigation as they face new dangers in higher numbers in Iraq where front lines do not exist.

The Army is drawing heavily on Reserve forces, which now make up 40 percent of the troops in Iraq and the overwhelming majority of logistics soldiers. Crisscrossing Iraq daily on routes plagued with road bombs and ambushes, they face dangers that approach those of GIs. Some 169 Army National Guard and Reserve soldiers have died in Iraq, with nearly 80 percent killed by hostile fire – a figure slightly higher than for active duty.

In Iraq, COSCOM officials say their 15,000 soldiers – 90 percent of whom are Guard and Reserve – train regularly on reacting to ambushes and also have armored escort for all convoys. "They would not have gone out the gate without the proper escort ... dedicated assets that provide force protection," says Lt. Col. Sue Davidson, commander of COSCOM's 49th Transportation Battalion. Each day, the convoys haul more than 1 million gallons of fuel, 110,000 cases of bottled water, and 24,000 rounds of ammunition.

Yet the dangers are constant, with between five and 20 insurgent ambushes with such weapons as road bombs, small arms and rockets daily. "We have more problems from interdiction by the enemy than by breakdowns," Lt. Col. Davidson says, adding that she must often redirect convoys or halt them at bases. COSCOM has lost 33 soldiers since February. The 343rd has suffered no casualties.

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