U.S. commanders plan to keep American troops at the current level in Iraq — about 135,000 — until the end of 2005, Pentagon officials said Tuesday.
The decision acknowledges Iraq is much more unstable and dangerous than generals had hoped earlier this year, when they planned to cut the number of troops occupying Iraq to about 115,000.
Since then, violence by Sunni and Shiite Muslim extremists has surged, making April the deadliest month for American troops since the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. Several U.S. allies also have decided to pull their forces out, most notably Spain, which had about 2,300 troops in one of the most volatile areas of south-central Iraq.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on Tuesday ordered about 10,000 active-duty Army soldiers and Marines to prepare to ship out to Iraq in the next few months.
They will help replace 20,000 soldiers in the Army's 1st Armored Division and 2nd Armored Calvary Regiment who were being kept in Iraq for as long as three months past their one-year tours of duty.
Another 10,000 active-duty troops will be called up to fill out the replacement forces, Rumsfeld said.
The troops coming into Iraq will be more heavily armed than the forces they replace, with more tanks, armored personnel carriers and armored Humvees, said Lt. Gen. Norton Schwartz of the Pentagon's Joint Staff.
"The mission remains essentially the same. It's security and stability," Schwartz told reporters at the Pentagon.
Many of the troops being sent to Iraq have served there or in Afghanistan before. They will return to a country where ambushes and roadside bombs are more common and the political situation is unstable, with the United States set to hand limited power to a yet-unnamed Iraqi caretaker government on July 1.
The active-duty units ordered to Iraq Tuesday include the 2nd Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division, based at Fort Drum, N.Y. The Marine units are the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit from Camp Pendleton, Calif., and the 24th MEU from Camp Lejeune, N.C.
Rumsfeld also approved sending 37,000 support troops to Iraq on Tuesday as part of the scheduled rotation of forces. Most of those troops are in National Guard and Army Reserve units.
Keeping such high troop levels in Iraq will further strain a military already stretched thin. All or part of nine of the Army's ten divisions are in Iraq or Afghanistan.
The 10th Mountain Division has units in both Iraq and Afghanistan. About 25,000 Marines already are in Iraq, many of them in and around the volatile city of Fallujah.
"I think we can handle the tempo," Schwartz said. "It is demanding, no question about it. But I haven't come to the conclusion that we need to grow the force yet."
A U.S.-based Army airborne brigade will be ready starting Friday to handle any emergency, said Army Lt. Gen. Richard Cody.
Still, keeping 20,000 more troops in Iraq will require more money, Schwartz said. Pentagon officials say they have not decided whether to ask Congress for additional money before the fiscal year ends Sept. 30.