Faced with mounting questions about the morale of U.S. troops in Iraq, members of the country's governing authority this week explained the actions they are taking to manage deployments, but stopped short of saying when troops might be withdrawn from the country.
During a House Government Reform Committee hearing on Wednesday, lawmakers who have traveled to Iraq and met with U.S. troops questioned what the Coalition Provisional Authority is doing to address hardships faced by deployed soldiers. Lawmakers were especially concerned about the morale of National Guard and Reserve soldiers, and worried about the impact of extended deployments on those forces.
In late August, Committee Chairman Tom Davis, R-Va., led a delegation of 11 lawmakers on a three-day tour of Iraq, where they also met with members of the provisional authority, which is in charge of rebuilding the country. The delegation visited the cities of Baghdad, Mosul, Tikrit, Babylon and Al Hillah.
During Wednesday's hearing, Davis said he is concerned about troop morale and cautioned military and Coalition Provisional Authority officials against mobilizing more forces.
"While the rotation of military forces in Iraq is essential, increasing the number of military personnel in the area may not be necessary or advisable to accomplish the mission," he said.
Rep. Don Sherwood, R-Pa., who serves on the House Appropriations Committee and went on the trip to Iraq, said morale of those on active duty is "sky high" but morale in the reserve components is sinking fast.
Les Brownlee, acting secretary of the Army, said his service is looking at every rotation to determine how to make adjustments. For example, the Army is cutting back on exercises and noncritical commitments, and is seeking more contractors in the areas of logistics and training to relieve soldiers of certain responsibilities.
As of last month, soldiers deployed in Iraq started participating in the Defense Department's Rest and Recuperation Leave Program, Brownlee said. Under the program, soldiers deployed between three and 11 months can take 15 days of leave and a flight, at government expense, to and from either Germany or the United States. In addition, each division has its own R&R policies to supplement those of the Defense Department.
Brownlee said the Army is trying to use active forces whenever possible in order to relieve the strain on reserve components.
But officials were vague when asked when U.S. troops might start withdrawing from Iraq.
Tom Korologos, senior counselor to Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, the chief civilian administrator in Iraq, said the Coalition Provisional Authority is not yet ready to stand on its own.
"Everybody wants to know when the troops are coming home," Korologos said. "The troops will start coming home when Ambassador Bremer comes home and the CPA succeeds."
Concerns have been raised on Capitol Hill and in some sectors of the military during the last several months that extended deployments might negatively affect National Guard and Reserve components.
A congressional delegation that traveled to Europe before the Iraq war concluded that members of the Guard and Reserves could start bailing out unless relief is provided.
"There is concern that unless changes are made in the active [duty]-reserve component mix, including an increase in the size of active components, the strains placed on the reserve components may lead to retention and other problems," the delegation's report said.
For the last seven years, reservists have been providing annual peacetime military support equaling that of 33,000 active-duty personnel.
Government Executive reported last month that at least two more of the Army National Guard's 15 enhanced combat brigades, which have about 5,000 troops each, are likely to be activated this fall for service in Iraq next year. In July, the Pentagon notified members of two enhanced brigades that they would begin training this winter for an Iraq deployment next spring.
About 180,000 members of the National Guard and Reserves are serving on active duty, many of them deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. The Bush administration's recent request for $87 billion in supplemental spending for operations in Iraq includes $2.2 billion for reserve mobilizations, which a senior administration official said would be used for calling up more National Guard and Reserve forces.