US troops in Iraq hit record number

The United States has increased its forces in Iraq to the highest total of the war at 161,000 troops, and the Pentagon said on Thursday it expected a similar number in place for the December elections.

The U.S. military increased its force in Iraq in advance of the October 15 referendum in which Iraqis approved a new constitution. The current total is about 23,000 higher than the usual level of 138,000, which includes 17 brigades.

Iraqi voters go to the polls again on December 15 to select a new government.

Chief Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita told reporters that the U.S. force would begin to decline “pretty dramatically” in the immediate future.

“For the next election (in December), it wouldn’t surprise me to see it go right back up to 160,000 again,” Di Rita said.

Di Rita said he expected Army Gen. George Casey, the top commander in Iraq, would “err on the side of more rather than less for the purposes of the election,” as he did for the constitutional referendum.

The United States has increased its force in Iraq periodically to provide extra security for elections and other political milestones like the June 2004 transfer of sovereignty.

The 161,000 troops is more than the original American invasion force in March 2003 and topped the previous high of 159,000 in place for the January 30 parliamentary elections.

The military achieved the increase by deploying about 2,000 extra troops but mostly by adjusting the rotation of forces previously scheduled to arrive and to depart Iraq at the end of their tours of duty, officials said.

U.S. commanders have said American-trained Iraqi government security forces took the lead in protecting the voting process in the referendum and would do so again for the December 15 elections, with U.S. troops serving as backup. There was relatively little violence by insurgents on either January 30 or October 15.

But there are lingering questions about the combat abilities of these Iraqi security forces and the degree to which they have been infiltrated by insurgents. The Pentagon said there are 206,500 Iraqi security forces, up from 135,000 in place for the January elections.

While the American force is bigger than ever, U.S. officials have spoken of a possible significant reduction in American troop strength in Iraq in 2006.

Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. ambassador to Iraq, said on Wednesday: “I do believe it’s possible that we could adjust our forces, downsizing them in the course of next year.” Khalilzad said this depended on positive political developments and continuing growth in the capabilities of the Iraqi forces.

In March and again in July, Casey predicted a “fairly substantial” reduction in American forces next spring and summer depending on the same progress mentioned by Khalilzad. But last month he said that until after the December 15 elections, it would be “too soon to tell” whether U.S. troops can come home as he had forecast.

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