WASHINGTON -- Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld acknowledged Thursday that he had not expected the level of violence confronting U.S. forces in Iraq, but he stood by his decision to send fewer troops than some Army officials and lawmakers have argued were needed to stabilize the country.
His remarks came during a Pentagon news conference at which Rumsfeld announced a three-month extension in tours for about 20,000 service members, keeping combat strength in place to deal with attacks by Sunni and Shiite insurgents that have led to record-high casualties for U.S. forces.
Rumsfeld said the extensions would allow the total number of U.S. service members to remain about 135,000, superseding previous plans to reduce the number to about 115,000.
Those staying include two brigades from the 1st Armored Division, based in Germany, said Marine Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, totaling as many as 14,000 service members, The Associated Press reported. An additional 2,800 soldiers are from the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, based in Fort Polk, La. These forces are geared for heavy ground combat, the AP reported.
Members of a Fort Bragg air ambulance company will stay in Iraq, and a Reserve transportation company from Salisbury will stay in Kuwait, The AP reported.
The rest include Army National Guard and Reserve units from 20 states, Pace told the AP. Most are military police, engineer and transportation units, according to the Pentagon.
Asked whether he could identify any mistakes he made before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Rumsfeld focused instead on his expectations for Iraq after U.S. forces invaded a year ago.
"If you had said to me a year ago, 'Describe the situation you'll be in today one year later,' I don't know many people who would have described it -- I would not have -- described it the way it happens to be today," he said.
Only halfway over, April already ranks as the deadliest month of the war for the United States, with 92 U.S. service members killed. In all, 685 U.S. service members have died since military operations began in Iraq, 491 of them as a result of hostile action, according to Pentagon figures.
Pressed on whether, in retrospect, he should have sent more troops to Iraq months ago, Rumsfeld tossed the question to the officer at his side, Pace. Pace defended the deployment as having achieved the right balance between too many and too few.
Pace said the original plan to reduce the number of troops in Iraq this spring, while rotating fresh forces into the country, had been devised to be flexible. Anticipating some rise in violence before the scheduled June 30 hand-over of power in Iraq, U.S. commanders had arranged for incoming forces to overlap with outgoing ones, achieving a temporary spike in the total number of troops in country.
The troops being kept in Iraq had expected to return home this month or next after completing a year of duty. Sixteen thousand soldiers slated to leave Iraq by May will still be allowed to go as fresh forces continue to arrive over the next few weeks under the original rotation plan, Rumsfeld said.