BAGHDAD, Iraq – The U.S. military will have a record-high 150,000 troops in Iraq through the Jan. 30 elections and "a little bit after," the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said Tuesday.
The U.S. military said two weeks ago that Iraq's security forces it wouldn't be able to adequately protect the vote and announced it was raising the number of troops from 138,000 to about 150,000 by mid-January — slightly more than even 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.
Since then, a big question has been whether troop numbers would then drop again.
"Our troop levels will be at 150,000 during the election and a little bit after," the chairman, Gen. Richard Myers (search), said during a visit to Iraq.
Asked when exactly troops would be drawn down again, he said: "That will be determined by events on the ground."
The election is for a 275-member assembly that will appoint a government and draft a permanent constitution. If adopted in a referendum next year, the constitution would form the legal basis for another general election to be held by late 2005.
While Shiite Muslims back the vote, many Sunni Arab Muslims have demanded a postponement because of the strength of Iraq's insurgency. The registration has yet to even begin in some Sunni-dominated areas where the guerrillas are strongest.
Myers said Iraq's elections must go ahead as scheduled.
"The only thing delaying them does is give leverage to the very people who are facilitating or participating in this insurgency," he said.
Myers predicted that last month's U.S.-led offensive to retake the western rebel stronghold of Fallujah (search) would undercut the rebellion by denying the guerrillas a sanctuary from which they could launch attacks with relative impunity.
"They will try to move to other locations but I don't think they are going to find any location as satisfactory as Fallujah was for their operational planning and facilitation of what they were doing."
Clashes between U.S. forces and insurgents resumed in Fallujah over the weekend and American warplanes launched air raids on suspected rebel strongholds.
"What we are seeing now are some remnants of fighters and insurgents in Fallujah that are being dealt with, although we have reports of a few insurgents trying to filter back in with ordinary Fallujah citizens," he said.
Some 250,000 people displaced by the fighting would start returning home "in the next few days," he said, providing no exact date and saying any return depended on the security situation there.
Myers also said U.S. forces were trying to ensure adequate security is provided for officials from the United Nations help organize the elections.
Secretary-General Kofi Annan (search) withdrew U.N. international staff from Iraq last year after two bombings at U.N. headquarters in Baghdad and a spate of attacks on humanitarian workers.
In August, Annan allowed a small U.N. contingent to return and imposed a ceiling of 35 international staffers, but he has been under pressure to increase the number to help Iraq prepare for elections.
"The United States is working very hard in providing and helping provide security for the U.N., not necessarily U.S. forces but coalition forces and other forces that aren't even in Iraq yet. Fiji is a country that comes to mind that is providing security forces that should be in country shortly," Myers said.
Fiji has offered 130 troops to protect U.N. staff and facilities in Iraq — the first country to respond to requests for a protection force separate from U.S.-led multinational force in Iraq.