MANAMA, Bahrain – The United States will boost its forces in Iraq to a record number of 150,000 in coming weeks because inexperienced Iraqi troops cannot ensure security for next month's national elections, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq said Saturday.
Gen. John Abizaid (search), head of U.S. Central Command, said "it had been our hope" that troop increases before the Jan. 30 election would consist mostly of Iraqis.
But "while the Iraqi troops are larger in number than they used to be, those forces have to be seasoned more, trained more. So, it's necessary to bring more American forces," he said.
The United States currently has about 138,000 troops in Iraq. On Wednesday, the Pentagon (search) said the deployment would increase to about 150,000 by mid-January — slightly more than during the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein's regime.
Most of that increase will come through extending until March the tours of duty of more than 10,000 soldiers and Marines originally scheduled to return home in January.
Abizaid said the U.S. military presence needed strengthening "to ensure that there is enough security for the elections." In the first popular vote since Saddam's ouster, Iraqis will choose a 275-member assembly that will write a permanent constitution.
There have been calls to postpone the election because of daily insurgent attacks, but the United States and interim Iraqi government have insisted it proceed on time.
"We have to understand that the elections are not going to be perfect, but it is important that elections happen," Abizaid said on the sidelines of a regional security conference in Bahrain.
Iraqi National Security Adviser Qassim Dawoud (search), who also attended the conference, welcomed the increase in American troops.
"Any delay in this election means giving an encouragement and a gift to the terrorists, who are trying to stop the movement toward a new democratic Iraq," he said. "Iraqis are ready for the election and we are taking every measure to increase security."
In September, President Bush said Iraq's government commanded almost 100,000 trained and combat-ready Iraqis, including police, national guardsmen and army soldiers. He predicted then the total would rise to 125,000 by Dec. 31.
Abizaid said those forces were "constantly improving," but they needed more mechanized forces and more leaders.
"When Iraqi military officers of senior rank get appointed to positions of responsibility, that's when I think the whole organization will start to come together," Abizaid said, referring to the Iraqi Army and National Guard.
Abizaid also said Iraq's neighbors — specifically Syria and Iran — must stop groups within their borders who are trying to destabilize Iraq. However, he made a rare U.S. acknowledgment of improvement, saying: "Things are better now then they were a month ago, but things are still not good enough."
Syria hosts many members of Saddam's regime who fund the insurgency, Abizaid said.
"We have asked the Syrian government to put a stop to that," he added.
In Iran, he said, some people were helping rebels such as Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr.
"All governments that border Iraq should assist the Iraqis in achieving stability ... without influencing the internal dynamics of the politics," Abizaid said.
A high-level summit on Iraq's security wrapped up Wednesday in Tehran, Iran, with Iraq's neighbors vowing to control their borders and stop the money transfers that finance terror activities.