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Originally published Thursday, February 7, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Portrait of tired U.S. force in Iraq

The top U.S. uniformed military officer on Wednesday described a tired U.S. military force, worn thin by operations in Iraq and Afghanistan...

WASHINGTON — The top U.S. uniformed military officer on Wednesday described a tired U.S. military force, worn thin by operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and unlikely to come home in large numbers anytime soon.

Defense Department officials testified that the Bush administration's plan to withdraw some 20,000 U.S. troops from Iraq this summer will do little to relieve the stress on the Army and Marine Corps.

Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the military was exhausted by the repeated deployments to Iraq.

Finding a way to reduce the amount of time troops are deployed to Iraq is critical, he said. Currently, soldiers are sent to Iraq for 15-month tours, and Marines serve seven-month stints, followed by seven months at home.

"The well is deep, but it is not infinite," Mullen said. "We must get Army deployments down to 12 months as soon as possible. People are tired."

Mullen and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates appeared before the committee to discuss the administration's request for $588.3 billion in defense spending for the 2009 budget year, which begins Oct. 1.

Gates said Wednesday that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would probably cost about $170 billion next year and could push total new defense spending above $685 billion.

But, he added that he is uncertain of the full amount, in part because he doesn't know how many troops will be in Iraq this fall. Also uncertain is whether Congress will approve the $102.5 billion still needed in this budget year, he said.

President Bush announced last year that the U.S. would reduce the number of American troops in Iraq by five combat brigades — about 20,000 people — during the first half of this year. U.S. troop strength in Iraq has hovered above 160,000 since June, when the military completed the deployment of an additional 30,000 troops as part of the so-called surge, which was intended to restore calm to Baghdad.

But security conditions will determine whether troop strength can be further reduced, officials have warned. Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, is expected to report this spring whether there can be more troop reductions.

Mullen said he favored reducing the number of troops in Iraq "sooner rather than later" so that Iraq deployments could return to 12 months. But he said that decision hasn't been made.

Others at the Pentagon doubt the U.S. will be able to reduce troop strength in Iraq to 100,000 for some time.

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"We are not going to do a precipitous withdrawal again," said a senior Pentagon official, referring to past efforts to hand over security responsibility to Iraqi forces and withdraw U.S. troops. The official asked not to be named because he wasn't authorized to discuss the issue publicly.

Also in his testimony, Gates said a long-term agreement being negotiated with Iraq on the presence of U.S. forces will not contain a commitment to defend Baghdad against external threats.

Democrats are expected to oppose the agreement if it provides such a guarantee, as well as efforts to halt further troop reductions.

As for the health of the nation's ground forces, Mullen said: "I don't think that we are broken, but we clearly can break them. And we are focused on this very heavily in literally every decision we review."

The Pentagon's spending request for next year seeks $20.5 billion to boost the size of the Army by 7,000 soldiers, to 532,400, and add 5,000 Marines to expand the Corps to 194,000.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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