By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Aug. 7, 2007 - An "artificial spike" in the number of U.S. troops in Iraq has led to the largest number of American servicemembers in the country ever, Pentagon officials said today. About 162,000 American troops are in Iraq, predominantly Army soldiers and Marines. Officials said the current number of U.S. troops in the country is an "artificial spike" because it resulted from normal rotation policies and is not a matter of the United States assigning more troops to the conflict.
The last time there were more than 160,000 U.S. servicemembers in Iraq was during stepped-up security operations for the January 2005 election, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman told reporters today.
Whitman said the new number was due solely to transition. The Army's 2nd Cavalry Regiment and 12th Combat Aviation Brigade are deploying to the country, and the 36th Combat Aviation Brigade and 25th Combat Aviation Brigade are redeploying out of Iraq.
Whitman said this is the normal rotation for the units. All deploying and redeploying units have an overlap time so the new unit can learn the battlespace from the previous one. The process is called "right-seat, left-seat." New units coming into the area ride along with the unit they are relieving -- sitting in the right seat to observe operations. After the familiarization, the new unit gets in the left seat and the relieving unit observes. The process takes a couple of weeks.
The number of American troops will drop once this process is completed, Whitman said. With 20 combat brigades or regimental combat teams and the attendant combat service and combat service support units, the number of Americans in Iraq will be between 155,000 and 157,000, officials said. The next rotation will cause another artificial spike in the numbers, officials said.
Whitman said Pentagon officials will continue to watch developments in Basra, where violence has increased as British troops turn more of Iraq's third-largest city over to Iraqi control. "Any time we see a spike in violence in any particular area, the coalition has concerns," Whitman said. "Commanders have flexibility to address the security situation."
Basra is part of the British-commanded Multinational Division Southeast. "Commanders will assess the situation in Basra, and if changes need to be made, they will make them," Whitman said. In addition to British troops, the division has forces from Italy, Romania, Denmark, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic and Lithuania under its command.
Fighting in Basra is between rival Shiia groups, officials in Baghdad said, and they cautioned against drawing conclusions based on one part of the diverse country.
Whitman said enemy fighters sometimes try to exploit transitions of the security mission from coalition to Iraqi forces. "There's always the risk as you turn over responsibilities, that the enemy could see that as a seam and try to take advantage of that," he said.
When coalition and Iraqi officials believe they have achieved a fair degree of stability and security in any given area, responsibility is transferred to Iraqi security forces. In some cases, the Iraqis were not prepared, and the town reverted to lawlessness, officials said, while in other areas, the changeover has occurred without a hitch.
Whitman said commanders on the ground, in consultation with Iraqi provincial and national leaders, are in the best position to make these judgments.
"What I have seen lately suggests we have a pretty good idea of when a particular area can be turned over and when the Iraqi forces in the area are prepared to assume the responsibilities," he said.