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Iraq 'surge' may need 7,000 back-up troops

FT.com | March 7, 2007
Demetri Sevastopulo, Alim Remtulla and Edward Luce

US commanders in Iraq may need another 7,000 troops to support the military surge in Iraq, a senior Pentagon official told Congress on Tuesday.

Gordon England, the deputy defence secretary, said the troops would be necessary to support the 21,500 combat troops who are being sent to Iraq to help quell violence in Baghdad and al-Anbar province. Appearing before the House budget committee, Mr England rejected a recent estimate by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office that the surge would require an additional 15,000-28,000 support personnel.

"Our expectation is the number of support troops could go above 21,500 but about 4,000, maybe as many as 7,000, if the commanders on the ground request and they are all validated," said Mr England. "But it will be much lower, in my judgment, than what the CBO estimate is."

Mr England said the additional personnel would add about $1bn to the cost of the surge, which has already started in Baghdad.

The hearings coincided with one of the bloodiest days in Iraq in recent months: 112 Shia pilgrims were killed in sectarian suicide bombs and nine US soldiers died in separate attacks in Baghdad.

Almost 3,200 US soldiers have so far been killed in Iraq and more than 25,000 injured - most of them severely. Iraq Body Count, a group that monitors deaths of Iraqi civilians, estimates conservatively that as many as 63,573 Iraqis have died.

President George W. Bush is struggling to maintain public support for the war. The latest USA Today/Gallup poll showed that 46 per cent of the public believes the US "cannot win" the war, up from 36 per cent three months ago. A record 59 per cent of respondents now believe the US made a mistake in invading Iraq.

The White House has also been forced on the defensive over revelations of abysmal conditions that veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have faced at Walter Reed military hospital. Mr Bush yesterday appointed Bob Dole, the former Republican presidential candidate, to head a commission of inquiry into their treatment at the leading US army medical centre in Washington.

According to the Washington Post, soldiers recuperating at Walter Reed have been housed in rodent-infested quarters and have had to jump through bureaucratic hoops to obtain subsistence-level disability benefits. Similar allegations have surfaced at other army medical centres.

In a speech to veterans on Tuesday, Mr Bush said the conditions were unacceptable. "We have a moral obligation to provide the best possible care and treatment to the men and women who serve our country," he said.

Mr Bush announced that Mr Dole would lead the nine-member commission with Donna Shalala, a Democratic former secretary for health and human services. Several other inquiries have been launched, including an internal army investigation into conditions at Walter Reed.

Senior generals told the Senate armed services committee that the cause of the problem had been bureaucratic. "We all run in a bureaucratic morass," said Peter Schoomaker, the army chief of staff.

Separately, the Pentagon announced that on Friday it would start proceedings against 14 high-value prisoners transferred from secret CIA prisons to Guantánamo last year. The detainees, who include Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the September 11 attacks, will be brought before combatant status review tribunals.

Several members of the House are expected to introduce legislation tomorrow complementing legislation before the Senate that would restore the rights of detainees at Guan-tán-amo to challenge the validity of their detention. The Senate passed legislation last year stripping prisoners of the right of habeas corpus, but some lawmakers are pushing to restore the right



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