The U.S. military will likely maintain the current force levels of more than 140,000 troops in Iraq through next spring, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East said Tuesday in one of the gloomiest assessments yet of how quickly American forces can be brought home.
Gen. John Abizaid, commander of U.S. Central Command, said the current number of troops "are prudent force levels" that are achieving the needed military effect. Military leaders will increase troop levels and extend the deployments of other units if needed, he said.
His comments came as U.S. political leaders continue to face declining public support for the war in Iraq, as they head into the coming congressional elections.
Late last year, military leaders had said they hoped to reduce troop levels to about 100,000 by the end of this year. But Abizaid said Tuesday that the rising sectarian violence and slow progress of the Iraqi government made that impossible.
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Tuesday's announcement about U.S. troop levels in Iraq demonstrates the difficulty that is being met in ensuring even the short-term survival of that country's young democracy.
"I think that we'll do whatever we have to do to stabilize Iraq and Afghanistan and use the military power of the U.S. to do that," Abizaid said.
There are currently 147,000 U.S. forces in Iraq — up more than 20,000 from the troop levels in late June. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld extended the one-year deployment of an Alaska-based brigade in July as part of the effort to stem the escalating violence in Baghdad.
Abizaid said more extension may be considered. "If it's necessary to do that because the military situation on the ground requires that, we'll do it," he said. "If we have to call in more forces because it's our military judgment that we need more forces, we'll do it."