WASHINGTON – Some 2,600 soldiers from a combat aviation unit will go to Iraq ahead of schedule, part of the support troops the Pentagon has said are needed to back the extra combat units President Bush is sending there.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates approved the deployment of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division combat aviation brigade 45 days earlier than planned, meaning they will go around May, a Defense Department official said Friday.
The approval will mean roughly 30,000 troops eventually will go to Baghdad and Anbar Province in the Bush administration's buildup to crack down on rising sectarian violence and insurgents, said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the information.
The new aviation unit will provide transport helicopters and gunships to assist ground brigades already flowing in for the buildup. Officials said that Gen. David Petraeus, the new U.S. commander in Iraq, wanted the buildup to move as quickly as possible.
"This was requested over a month ago as part of the surge," said Col. Steven Boylan, public affairs officer for Petraeus. "These are what we call the enablers."
Two months ago, Bush ordered 21,500 additional American troops to Iraq to help calm the violence. He did not initially mention that support units would also be needed.
Officials later said that the number of support troops needed for the influx could be around 7,000. So far, these have included 2,400 combat support troops and 2,200 military police to help with an anticipated increase in detainees picked up during the crackdown.
Asked what he would say to critics of the steady additions to the original number, the Defense Department official said some of the requests came after Petraeus arrived in Iraq and assessed what he needed. He said Gates wants to give commanders what they believe they need to do the job as long as the requests are justified.
In an AP Radio interview, Canadian Army Major General Peter Devlin, deputy commanding general of coalition forces in Iraq, said of the extra troops, "What was always asked for was, beyond the combat formation, were the typical enablers that go along with combat formations."
Asked whether there are likely to be more such requests, he said, "Yes. It is exactly something that you would expect, is that there is a need for support troops to do what they do."
There are now roughly 142,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. About 60,000 are combat forces, the rest are support troops.
The Boston Globe reported on its Web site Thursday night that Petraeus had asked for an Army combat aviation unit with 2,500 to 3,000 troops, which were likely to come from the Army's 3rd Infantry, citing unidentified senior Pentagon officials.