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Grim Rumsfeld extends troops’ tour of duty

Washington, April 16 (Reuters): Expressing surprise at the growing US military death toll in Iraq, defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld said today he had extended the promised year-long tours of 20,000 American troops there including 6,000 Reserve and National Guard members.

Rumsfeld stopped short of saying the Pentagon failed to put enough forces into Iraq when it invaded a year ago, but conceded he did not expect that dozens of US troops would die in fighting with Sunnis and Shias in the past week alone. “I certainly would not have estimated that we would have had the individuals lost that we have had lost in the last week,” he told a press conference, responding to questions on the deaths of at least 93 US troops since March 31.

This month’s toll has pushed to more than 680 the total number of US troops who have died in Iraq from “hostile action,” accidents and other causes since the war began.

Like President George W. Bush in a news conference earlier this week, Rumsfeld stopped far short of bowing to charges from critics that Washington had simply not anticipated the lawlessness and opposition that a US-led coalition is now be battling in Iraq.

“I would rather answer it my way,” a grim-faced Rumsfeld retorted at one point after being pressed repeatedly on the issue. “What I said, I thought, reasonably clearly was that if, a year ago, you had asked me to describe where you would be on April 15, 2004, in Iraq ... I would not have described it precisely the way we are now,” he added.

There are currently about 137,000 US troops in Iraq and that number will remain at about 135,000 for at least the next three months instead of following a previous plan to draw the number down to 115,000 in the coming two weeks. “Essentially, we’ve approved the extension of roughly 20,000 forces — people who are currently in the theatre — of which roughly a quarter are likely to be Guard and Reserve personnel,” Rumsfeld said.

He said the troops — including 11,000 from the US 1st Armored Division based in Germany, 3,200 from the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment based in Fort Polk, Louisiana, and another 6,000 Guard and Reserve members from 20 states — would remain in Iraq for 90 days instead of ending their one-year tours this month. The troops could be deployed for up to 30 days beyond the 90 days as they are rotated home, the secretary said. All US troops in Iraq have been sent there under a promise to be brought home after a year and extension of the dangerous tours of duty has caused consternation among many military families.

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