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More troops needed to secure Iraq: Abizaid

September 24, 2004

WASHINGTON, Sept 23: Amid escalating violence in Iraq, the top US commander has acknowledged more troops are needed to secure the country before elections in January.

Gen John Abizaid, head of the Central Command, said he believed the gap can be filled by Iraqi security forces, and that more international troops may be deployed to protect the UN-organized elections. But his remarks after closed door sessions with congressional armed services committee members late on Wednesday raised the prospect that the United States may have to enlarge the 140,000-member force deployed in Iraq, at least during the elections.

"I think we will need more troops than we currently have to secure the elections process in Iraq that will probably take place in the end of January," Gen Abizaid told reporters. "But it is our belief that those troops will be Iraqi troops. And they may be additional international troops that arrive to help out, as well, as part of the United Nations mission," he said.

"And so I don't foresee a need for more American troops, but we can't discount it," he said. The issue of whether the United States has committed sufficient forces in Iraq to impose order is a touchy one for President George Bush, who has come under fire from Democratic challenger Senator John Kerry for Iraq's slide into bloodshed.

Critics have charged that the US force is too small to pacify Iraq, while Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has insisted repeatedly that Gen Abizaid has been given and will be given all the forces he asks for to get the job done.

Mr Rumsfeld, who was with Gen Abizaid on Wednesday, bristled when reminded that former army chief of staff Gen Eric Shinseki had warned Congress before the United States invaded Iraq that several hundred thousand troops would be needed to occupy the country.

He said retired general Tommy Franks, who led the invasion of Iraq and was Gen Abizaid's predecessor at the Central Command, had asked for a smaller force of about 200,000, including troops in Kuwait. "And the numbers that were provided were the numbers that were asked for by the combatant commander," Rumsfeld said. "There is no mystery about it. Nobody turned him down. Nobody said it should be a smaller number. And the people who are running around the world saying that simply are wrong," Rumsfeld said.

Senator Joe Lieberman, a prominent Democratic supporter of the war, said the Pentagon leaders needed to be constantly asking ground commanders whether they had enough forces "to push back the enemy."

"I wouldn't take increasing troop strength short-term off the table at all," he told defence reporters. The elections will coincide with a rotation of US forces in Iraq, providing an opportunity to use the overlap in deployments to temporarily increase the numbers of troops on the ground.

During the last rotation of US forces, an upsurge in violence forced the Pentagon to extend the deployments of some units and to shelve plans to reduce the size of the force to about 105,000. -AFP