WASHINGTON - The Marine Corps, which played a central role in toppling Saddam Hussein last spring, will return to Iraq as part of a U.S. troop rotation next year, officials said Wednesday.
Since the Marines' departure from Iraq in September, the military effort to stabilize and rebuild Iraq has fallen almost entirely to the Army, plus multinational units led by Britain and Poland.
The 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit recently began anti-smuggling operations in the Persian Gulf coastal area in southern Iraq. But no Marines have been doing stability operations, such as working with Iraqi civilians on rebuilding projects or hunting for fugitives loyal to Saddam, since the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force departed south-central Iraq in September.
Also included in the next U.S. rotation will be thousands of newly mobilized National Guard and Reserve troops as well as active duty Army units such as the 1st Cavalry Division from Fort Hood, Texas, and the 1st Infantry Division in Germany, according to officials who discussed the matter on condition of anonymity.
No National Guard combat brigades will be called on, beyond the three already mobilized from North Carolina, Arkansas and Washington state to prepare for deployment to Iraq next year. The extra Guard and Reserve troops to be mobilized will be combat support forces such as military police.
Instead of relying almost exclusively on the Army to provide reserve forces for support, the Pentagon intends to mobilize specialists from the reserve components of the Air Force and Navy, too.
On Capitol Hill, Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said troop orders were being issued Wednesday and Pentagon officials planned to publicly release details on Thursday.
Pace said members of Congress were being briefed on the plan Wednesday. He declined to give reporters details.
Pace said that by May the Pentagon expects to have just over 100,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, a drop of 30,000 from present levels. The Pentagon also hopes to have about 170,000 Iraqi security forces by then - compared with about 100,000 now - and two multinational divisions of about 12,000 each.
The Pentagon has struggled to set the troop rotation for 2004 because of the Bush administration's inability so far to persuade its international partners to contribute significant troops. Turkey had offered to send thousands but has balked in the face of Iraqi political opposition.
The Army has shouldered most of the burden of attempting to stabilize Iraq. It has been stretched thin by multiple overseas commitments, including anti-terrorism efforts Afghanistan as well as Iraq.
The first major Army unit to be replaced in Iraq next year is the 101st Airborne Division, which played an important role in the march to Baghdad and has operated mainly in northern Iraq since then.
When the Army announced in July an outline for the next troop rotation, it said the 101st would be replaced by a multinational division to be identified later. Because that international force has not materialized, the Pentagon has been forced to call on other U.S. forces to fill the gap.
It appears the Pentagon will replace the 101st with a smaller group of forces, in part because the area in which it operated - northern Iraq - has been relatively stable and peaceful.
Some units that will return home in the next rotation will not be replaced. This includes a brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division, as well as the 173rd Airborne Brigade. As a result, the total number of U.S. troops in Iraq is likely to fall to near the 100,000 mark next spring. That compares with about 130,000 there now.
Also coming home in the next rotation will be the 4th Infantry Division from Fort Hood, Texas, and the 1st Armored Division from Germany.