WASHINGTON – Army National Guard (search) members and reservists currently serving in Iraq may have to stay overseas a few months longer, Fox News has confirmed.
Just as regular Army (search) soldiers have had their tours of duty extended, the National Guard and reserve troops will have their mobilizations redefined so that they serve a whole year in Iraq, defense officials said Tuesday.
Since Sept. 11, defense officials have had the authority to activate Guard and reserve troops for two years. Most have been called up for only one year of service, which until now has included weeks or months of training before deploying to Iraq, as well as time for debriefings once returning.
The new policy disregards time spent training and debriefing, and counts only time deployed "in country" as part of the active year. This means some Guard and Army Reserve troops could have their original 12-month mobilizations extended an additional one to six months.
The new order, signed Friday night and not publicly announced, covers some 20,000 Guard members and reservists. It applies only to those troops already in Iraq, not those scheduled to deploy in coming months.
Steve Stromvall, a spokesman for the Army Reserve at Fort McPherson, Ga., told The Washington Post, which first reported the story, that many Guard and Reserve forces in Iraq and Kuwait would not be "pleasantly surprised" by the new policy.
But, he added, it "is going to help us give some predictability and therefore some stability to Army Reserve soldiers."
Retired Army Maj. Gen. William L. Nash, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (search), told the Post that the new policy is "a manifestation of the challenges the Army is facing meeting its troop obligations throughout the world, and particularly in Iraq."
There are 130,000 American soldiers and Marines inside Iraq, and more than 40,000 more in Kuwait, Qatar and other regions. Among them are 8,000 National Guard members and 12,000 Army reservists, mostly in Iraq and Kuwait.
Twenty thousand other troops, mainly British, but also from 28 other countries, are also in Iraq. Two multinational divisions, led by the British and the Poles, have been installed. The U.S. has requested a third multinational division.
Gen. John Keane, the Army's acting chief of staff, told Fox News that the first priority is to provide Gen. John Abizaid, the new head of U.S. Central Command, "the force he needs to decisively defeat those elements that threaten security in Iraq, and allowing the Coalition Provisional Authority to meet its objectives."
He offered a historical perspective on the year-long deployment.
In Korea, Keane said, the Army established a rotation policy of six months for combat units and 12 months for combat support. It later went through a complicated point system for individual soldiers. In Vietnam, soldiers rotated after 12 months in theater on an individual basis. Subsequent rotation policies varied in response to the combatant commander's needs.
Since 1982, the United States had a six-month unit rotation policy in the Sinai, Keane said. In 1995, U.S. forces began with a 12-month unit rotation in the Balkans, and shortly thereafter, changed it to a six-month rotation policy, which is now the situation in Bosnia and Kosovo. U.S. forces in Afghanistan are currently on a six-month unit rotation policy.
Troop rotation in Iraq has become a sensitive issue, with some soldiers and their families complaining bitterly about delays. Members of the 3rd Infantry Division, for instance, fought their way to Baghdad in late March and were then told they'd be going home, only to remain in Iraq for months.
Officials said the mobilized Guard and reservists were still needed to augment active-duty troops in all sorts of logistical matters, including as military police and civil-affairs officers.
"We saw this coming," Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., told Fox News on Tuesday, noting that U.S. reservists had been stretched too thin in Kosovo and Bosnia.
"We've got to target this ... infrastructure and build back up what was torn down by the Clinton administration," he said, adding that President Bush's $87 billion request to fund the war on terror for fiscal 2004 would help solve the problem.
The Pentagon spent weeks earlier this summer struggling to come up with a troop-rotation plan alleviating the overstretched Army, which has major commitments in Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo, South Korea, Japan, Germany and the Sinai peninsula.
The Army, the largest of the armed services, has had portions of every major active-duty combat unit committed to either Iraq or Afghanistan, with the exception of the 2nd Infantry Division, which is in South Korea.
When the Army released its force restructuring plan for Iraq on July 23, it was understood that many of the units that were going into Iraq to replace battle-weary units could expect to be there for one full year.
Some exceptions, like the National Guard brigades, were to serve six-month tours.
The Bush administration's latest U.N. Security Council draft resolution asks for troops from more member countries, and White House officials maintain that no more U.S. troops need to be sent to Iraq. But France, Germany and Russia, which opposed the American-British invasion, have refused to commit soldiers without control of Iraq being transferred from the U.S. to the U.N.
Iraqi insurgents and fighters from surrounding countries attack coalition forces almost daily, and are thwarting reconstruction and security efforts.
Sending more American soldiers would antagonize Iraqis and Afghans and provide more targets for terrorists, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and others have said.
Fox News' Bret Baier and Ian McCaleb and The Associated Press contributed to this report.