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Pentagon lengthens combat tours

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Army soldiers deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan will serve at least15 months in those combat zones, instead of 12, the Defense Department announced Wednesday.

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Army soldiers deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan will serve at least15 months in those combat zones, instead of 12, the Defense Department announced Wednesday.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the new rotation schedule would allow the Pentagon to guarantee units at least 12 months at home between war-zone rotations. Without the change, he said, five brigades would have had to return to combat after less than a year at home.

But Democrats charged that lengthening the time troops will be expected to stay in Iraq is further proof that the so-called "surge" that President Bush announced in January is really a long-term increase in troop strength likely to last well into next year. They also called it an acknowledgement that the Iraq war has seriously overstretched the U.S. military's largest branch.

"The decision to extend the tours of U.S. service members by three months is an urgent warning that the administration's Iraq policy cannot be sustained without doing terrible long-term damage to ourmilitary," Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., said in a statement after the announcement. "We don't have to guess at the impact on readiness, recruitment and retention."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the change was "unacceptable," while Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., called it "another in a long line of examples of how the president's Iraq policies are making us less secure."

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Republicans appeared divided. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., just back from his sixth trip to Iraq, said he supported the change. "The worst thing you could do to this military is to lose this war," he said.

But Sen. John Warner, R-Va., the senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services committee, voiced caution.

"Having served as Secretary of the Navy when the concept of the all-volunteer force was being developed, and having observed, in the ensuing years, the extraordinary success of that system in providing for America's security, I feel strongly that we must carefully monitor the possible risks to that system that these extensions may generate," Warner said.

The new schedule is effective immediately for all Army troops serving in or getting ready to deploy to either Iraq or Afghanistan. It doesn't affect the Marine Corps, whose members are rotated into the war zone for seven months, with six months between tours, or Army National Guard and Reserve units, whose tours still will last 12 months.

There are 104,000 Army troops in Iraq who will be affected by the change, the Pentagon said.

Finding enough troops to serve in Iraq has been a problem throughout the war's four years. On at least eight occasions, the Pentagon has had to extend the deployment of troops already in Iraq to meet security demands.

But the problem has become critical in the past three months after Bush announced what was to have been a temporary "surge" of 21,500 troops to help quell violence in Baghdad and Iraq's restive Anbar province. Initially, that surge was expected to last through the summer.

Now, however, U.S. commanders in Iraq are expected to keep troop levels up until at least next year and perhaps longer. Additionally, Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, has received permission to deploy an additional 7,000 troops.

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On U.S. Army bases, commanders and families scrambled to determine the effect of the new deployment schedule.

Earlier this month at Fort Drum, N.Y., for example, members of the 1st Brigade, 10th Mountain Division, learned they would return to Iraq early, less than a year after their last rotation. Today, commanders scrambled to learn if they still were going early as their troops trained at Fort Polk, La.

"Everyone is on the phone trying to find out," said Ben Abel, a base spokesman.

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