WASHINGTON The Pentagon is projecting that when the U.S. troop buildup in Iraq ends in July there will be about 8,000 more troops on the ground than when it began in January 2007, a senior general said Monday.
Lt. Gen. Carter Ham, operations chief for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that by July the troop total is likely to be 140,000. That compares with 132,000 when President Bush approved orders to send an additional five Army brigades to Iraq to improve security and avert civil war.
Ham also announced that the Pentagon believes U.S. force levels in Afghanistan will stand at 32,000 in late summer, up from about 28,000 currently. The current total is the highest since the war began in October 2001, and another 3,200 Marines are scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan this spring.
It had been widely expected that some support troops sent to Iraq with the five extra brigades would need to remain, even after July. But until now it was not clear what their number would be.
Ham stressed that his projected number of 140,000 is subject to change depending on security conditions, but it is the first time the Pentagon has publicly estimated what the total will be.
Among the support forces to be needed beyond July, Ham said, are military police, logistics troops, aviation forces and a headquarters staff to command combat forces in an area south of Baghdad. The headquarters of the 3rd Infantry Division was installed there as part of Bush's "surge" of forces in April; it will be replaced this summer by an unspecified unit, Ham said.
One reason for keeping a higher number of U.S. security forces is that the plan for transitioning responsibility for detention facilities to the Iraqi government "has not progressed as rapidly as we would like," Ham said. "So there is a need to have the (American) force sustained."
Ham said it was not possible to know how long troop levels would stay at 140,000. He noted that the Joint Staff and other military organizations are studying post-July troop levels and will make recommendations to Bush this spring.
The general, asked if the total would be below 132,000 by the time Bush leaves office next January, said, "It would be premature to say that."
When Bush announced his decision last September to reinforce troop levels in Iraq, he said an extra 21,500 combat troops, including the five Army brigades, would be sent. Eventually it became clear that another 8,000 support forces were required as well, although they got less public attention.
So far, one of the five extra Army brigades in Iraq has returned without being replaced, reducing the number of brigades from a peak of 20 to 19. Ham said the number would drop to 18 in March. By July it will fall to 15.
Separately, the Pentagon announced that an Army general who was among those thought to be a possible successor to Gen. David Petraeus as the top American commander in Iraq is being given a different assignment.
Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal is currently commander of Joint Special Operations Command, heading U.S. special operations in Iraq. In his new assignment, McChrystal will be director of the Joint Staff at the Pentagon, replacing Lt. Gen. Walter Sharp, who has been named the new commander of U.S. forces in South Korea.
No date has been set for Petraeus to end his tour in Iraq. He arrived there in February 2007.