[b] Pentagon prepared to leave American fighting forces in Iraq for another DECADE, says top Army chief [/b]
By Mail Foreign Service UK
Last updated at 3:46 PM on 27th May 2009
The Pentagon is prepared to leave fighting forces in Iraq for as long as a decade, the top U.S. Army officer said today.
General George Casey's comments came as a U.S. soldier was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq today, making May the deadliest month for the American armed forces since September.
An Associated Press tally shows that at least 20 American service members have died so far this month, compared with 25 in September.
Four U.S. civilians also have been killed in Iraq since Friday.
In all, at least 4,302 members of the U.S. military have died in Iraq since the began in March 2003, according to the AP.
Gen Casey spoke despite an agreement between the United States and Iraq that would bring all American troops home by 2012.
The Army chief of staff said the world remains dangerous and unpredictable, and the Pentagon must plan for extended U.S. combat and stability operations in two wars.
'Global trends are pushing in the wrong direction,' Gen Casey said. 'They fundamentally will change how the Army works.'
He spoke at an invitation-only briefing to a dozen journalists and policy analysts from Washington-based think-tanks. He said his planning envisions combat troops in Iraq and Afghanistan for a decade as part of a sustained U.S. commitment to fighting extremism and terrorism in the Middle East.
Gen Casey's calculations about force levels are related to his attempt to ease the brutal deployment calendar that he said would 'bring the Army to its knees.'
Casey would not specify how many combat units would be split between Iraq and Afghanistan. He said U.S. ground commander Gen Ray Odierno is leading a study to determine how far U.S. forces could be cut back in Iraq and still be effective.
Gen Casey said his comments about the long war in Iraq were not meant to conflict with Obama administration policies.
President Barack Obama plans to bring U.S. combat forces home from Iraq in 2010, and the United States and Iraq have agreed that all American forces would leave by 2012.
Although several senior U.S. officials have suggested Iraq could request an extension, the legal agreement the two countries signed last year would have to be amended for any significant U.S. presence to remain.
As recently as February, Defence Secretary Robert Gates reiterated the U.S. commitment to the agreement worked out with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
'Under the Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government, I intend to remove all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011,' Mr Gates said during an address at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.
'We will complete this transition to Iraqi responsibility, and we will bring our troops home with the honour that they have earned.'
The United States currently has about 139,000 troops in Iraq and 52,000 in Afghanistan.
Mr Obama campaigned on ending the Iraq war as quickly as possible and refocusing U.S. resources on what he called the more important fight in Afghanistan.
That will not mean a major influx of U.S. fighting forces on the model of the Iraq 'surge,' however.
Mr Obama has agreed to send about 21,000 combat forces and trainers to Afghanistan this year. Combined with additional forces approved before former President George W. Bush left office, the United States is expected to have about 68,000 troops in Afghanistan by the end of this year.
That's about double the total at the end of 2008, but Mr Obama's top military and civilian advisers have indicated the number is unlikely to grow much beyond that.
Gen Casey said several times that he wasn't the person making policy, but the military was preparing to have a fighting force deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan for years to come. He said his planning envisions 10 combat brigades plus command and support forces committed to the two wars.