By Charles Aldinger
The Pentagon on Monday notified 92,000 fresh U.S. troops to prepare for rotation to Iraq over a two-year period beginning in mid-2006, but cautioned that the number did not signal immediate plans to slash a much-higher U.S. troop level now in that country.
There are currently about 160,000 American troops in Iraq. That total, boosted to help security for elections in October and December, is above the usual "baseline" level of about 138,000 U.S. troops stationed there.
President George W. Bush, whose plunge in popularity at home has been partly because of growing U.S. casualties in Iraq since the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion, is under heavy pressure to make cuts in American forces there.
But Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld have stressed that any U.S. troop reductions will depend on the Iraqi security forces' ability to take over defense of their country from insurgents and foreign fighters.
"This announcement of initial units for rotation is not a decision to change the baseline structure" of 138,000, said Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman on Monday.
Army Lt. Col. Barry Venable, another Pentagon spokesman, said that more American troops were likely to be notified later that they will be added to the rotation relief of current U.S. forces there, "but we have time to wait while the situation in Iraq continues to be assessed."
Rumsfeld cautioned at a Pentagon news conference with visiting British Defense Minister John Reid earlier on Monday that the rotation announcement was routine and did not signal a final decision had been made by commanders in Iraq on lower U.S. troops levels.
Rumsfeld said U.S. Army Lt. Gen. George Casey, the commander of coalition forces in Iraq, continued to assess the capabilities of Iraq's own security forces, but had made no recommendations yet for new U.S. levels.
The Pentagon said the breakdown included 79,531 Army troops, 5,359 Marines, 3,697 Navy sailors and 3,356 Air Force