WASHINGTON - About 85,000 U.S. troops have been alerted they will soon be sent to Iraq to relieve forces who have been there for up to a year, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Thursday.
In addition, nearly 47,000 National Guard and Reserve forces are in the process of being notified that they will be activated to serve in Iraq or Afghanistan, Rumsfeld said at a Pentagon news conference. Even more Army soldiers could be alerted soon to add to those deployments, Rumsfeld said.
The Pentagon's plan for rotating U.S. troops in Iraq next year includes a return of the Marine Corps and a net reduction in the total American force.
Some of the troops rotating into Iraq will be returning for their second tour of duty there - and some only a short time after they were sent home, Rumsfeld said.
Reservists will be called up for a maximum of 18 months, with a year in Iraq, Rumsfeld said. The Marines will be activated for a year, with seven months in Iraq, he said.
"While there will be imperfections along the way, the services made every effort to make sure the guard and reserve forces are treated respectfully," Rumsfeld said.
Marine Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Wednesday the number of U.S. troops should be cut to about 100,000 by May from the current 130,000. He gave no details.
The reduction contrasts with calls from some in Congress for increased force levels. The Bush administration says it can improve security and stability in Iraq with fewer U.S. forces because it is rapidly increasing the number of Iraqis trained for security missions.
Pace said the number of trained Iraqis, now about 118,000, will reach about 170,000 by May.
The Pentagon has been working for months on a troop rotation plan. It is based on a commitment to keep troops in Iraq for no more than a year at a time, and since tens of thousands have been there since last spring, the Pentagon needs to notify replacements to get ready.
Rumsfeld signed the orders Wednesday and members of Congress were briefed on the details, officials said.
Officials said the 1st Marine Division, based at Camp Pendleton, Calif., will return to Iraq as part of the rotation. That division, which includes the 1st, 5th, 7th and 11th Marine regiments, played a key role in the invasion of Iraq and the capture of Baghdad, then left in September. Since then, the military effort in Iraq has fallen almost entirely to the Army, plus multinational units led by Britain and Poland.
Although the 1st Marine Division is being called on for a second time, many if not most of the individuals who were in the division then will have moved to other assignments by the time the division returns to Iraq, officials said. The New York Times reported Thursday that about 20,000 members of the 1st Marine Division will be sent.
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 deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, since the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force left south-central Iraq in September.
Also included in the next U.S. rotation will be thousands of newly mobilized National Guard and Reserve troops and 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 hundreds of specialists from the reserve components of the Air Force and Navy, too.
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.
Pace told a House Armed Services Committee hearing Wednesday that the multinational divisions led by Poland and Britain will be replaced next year. He did not say who would replace them.
"That is the expectation, and we believe we have, through our State Department, commitments from the countries that that will, in fact, happen," he said without naming the countries.
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.