BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – On his first visit to Iraq since the U.S. accelerated combat operations, Marine Gen. Peter Pace is seeing the strain on American troops.
Men and women in uniform have been doing multiple tours of duty, and soldiers are serving longer after the Army’s decision in January to extend deployments by three months – to 15.
“That has impact on families,” the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said in an Associated Press interview Monday.
The nation’s top general made clear he believes the soldiers and Marines in Iraq are focused on their mission. He seemed more concerned that families would become fed up with the long separations and the constant worry about loved ones being killed or wounded.
Multiple combat tours for many in the Army and Marine Corps could tear at the fabric of the military, he said, and that’s one reason he’s visiting troops now – to hear their concerns, assess their morale and explain why he advocated longer tours. He also plans to stop in Germany this week to meet with family members of military units that are affected by tour extensions.
Pace said that in weighing possible new directions in Iraq, the Bush administration must consider not only what works best on the battlefield but also the growing stress of more than four years of war on troops and their families.
He said that he and the chiefs of the Army, Marine Corps, Navy and Air Force are developing their own assessment of the situation in Iraq, to be presented to President Bush in September – separately from the highly anticipated report to Congress that month by Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander for Iraq.
The Joint Chiefs are considering a range of actions, including an even bigger troop buildup, Pace said. He called it prudent planning to enable the services to be ready for any possibility.
The military must “be prepared for whatever it’s going to look like two months from now,” Pace said in a separate interview with two reporters traveling with him to Iraq from Washington.
“That way, if we need to plus up or come down” in numbers of troops in Iraq, the details will have been studied, he said.
Pace, on his first visit since U.S. commanders accelerated combat operations in mid-June, said another option under consideration is maintaining current troop levels beyond September.
158,000 in Iraq now
There are now about 158,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, reflecting a boost of about 30,000 to carry out the new strategy Bush announced in January. The plan is focused on providing better security for Iraqis in Baghdad, but the intended effect – political reconciliation between Sunnis and Shiites – has yet to be achieved, and many in Congress are clamoring to begin withdrawing troops soon.
In Washington on Monday, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid said he would force the chamber’s first all-night debate on the Iraq war Tuesday night in advance of a vote Wednesday on whether to bring home all combat troops by next spring.
Republicans are using Senate rules to insist that the measure have 60 votes to pass – a de facto filibuster since it takes that many votes to cut off debate.
Pace spoke with the AP at a U.S. military headquarters on the outskirts of the capital after meeting with commanders and conferring by secure video teleconference with Bush.
He also conferred with Petraeus and Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the No. 2 commander in Iraq, who said he did not currently foresee requesting more troops.
“My assessment right now is I need more time” to understand how the offensive that is targeting al-Qaida in Iraq is working and how it could lead to political progress, Odierno said.
Pace said he saw signs of improvement since his previous visit in April, based in part on a 30-minute aerial tour of Baghdad in a Black Hawk helicopter as well as private talks with commanders.
“The surge is having very good positive results on the streets of Baghdad,” he said. “We have yet to see the political progress and results that you would hope to see.”
All the while, the violence continues. On Monday, a suicide truck bombing followed by two smaller car bombs killed more than 80 people and wounded at least 180 in Kirkuk, about 180 miles north of Baghdad.
There are deep tensions between Kurds and Arabs in the city, and Sunni insurgents are believed to be moving north, fleeing the U.S. offensive around Baghdad and consolidating to carry out deadly bombings.
As for the U.S. troop boost, some on the Joint Chiefs had argued against it in January, in part out of concern that it could not be sustained long enough to have the desired effect and that it would put too much strain on the military.
The chiefs for a number of weeks have been studying the timing of a possible U.S. military transition away from today’s combat-oriented mission to one focused mainly on training Iraqi security forces while also protecting Iraq’s borders and continuing the fight against terrorists.
Pace, who will be replaced soon by Adm. Michael Mullen as Joint Chiefs chairman, was asked whether he feels political pressure amid a heated and prolonged Iraq debate in Congress and the approach of the 2008 elections.
“I don’t feel any pressure” of that sort, he said.