As October's referendum on the Iraqi constitution nears, the U.S. is increasing troop levels to help deal with any potential disruptions. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced on Wednesday that at least 1,500 additional troops from two battalions of the 82nd Airborne Division from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, would be deployed in mid-September.
Senior commanders requested the troops amid concerns that insurgents might increase their attacks in an attempt to disrupt the October 15 referendum and national elections in December, according to a report by The New York Times. Along with an increase announced last week, the latest troop deployment of American forces in Iraq would bring the total number of soldiers up from 138,000 to nearly 160,000. The final tally includes a delay in the departure of some units that were due to leave in the fall and the early deployment of other units.
The 82nd Airborne troops will likely be used at checkpoints and would remain in Iraq for no more than four months, officials told the Times. "Regrettably, completing the constitution is not likely to end all the violence in Iraq or solve all of the country's problems," Rumsfeld said. Troop levels were previously increased during last June's transfer to sovereignty and January's elections.
While Rumsfeld was announcing the increases, London's Financial Times reported that the U.S. is expected to remove a "significant" amount of troops from Iraq in the next 12 months. Major General Douglas Lute, director of operations at U.S. central command, told the Financial Times that the reductions were part of a push to shift the burden of defending Iraq to Iraqi forces.
In a speech on Wednesday, President Bush again vowed not to pull out of Iraq before he thinks the job there is done. Speaking to a gathering of National Guard troops and their families in Idaho, Bush, trying to link Iraq with terrorism, said, "So long as I'm the president, we will stay, we will fight, and we will win the war on terror." The president, in the midst of a three-day trip to Utah and Idaho to drum up flagging support for the war, later met privately with relatives of troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to The Associated Press.
Though he didn't mention anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan by name, Bush made a veiled reference to the ongoing peace vigil by the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq. "An immediate withdrawal of our troops in Iraq or the broader Middle East, as some have called for, would only embolden the terrorists," Bush claimed.
Sheehan, who has drawn international attention for the vigil she has maintained outside of Bush's Texas ranch for nearly a month, returned on Wednesday to her makeshift camp after spending time with her sick mother in California. "This is where I belong, until August 31, like I told the president," Sheehan said.
Despite its rejection by minority Sunni Arabs and bickering between rival factions in the Shiite majority over several points, the Iraqi parliament had hoped to approve a final draft of a constitution on Thursday (August 25), according to a Reuters report. "By the end of the day we will have a final version of the draft," government spokesperson Laith Kubba said. "It will be approved. The National Assembly will then rubber-stamp it." At day's end, a spokesperson for the parliament said its members would take one more day to try to resolve the disputes, with a compromise agreement now expected by Friday.
Kubba said the government is prepared to risk the rejection of the document at the October 15 referendum, which would dissolve parliament and force the entire constitutional process to begin from scratch during another year of provisional rule. As of late Wednesday, the Shia and Kurd majority coalition had threatened to force the constitution through parliament if a consensus could not be reached with the Sunni minority.
At press time, however, Iraqi politicians continued to negotiate the terms of the new constitution, working from a draft submitted to parliament just before Monday's midnight deadline (see "Iraqi Lawmakers Deliver Final Constitution But Delay Vote").
Some headway was made on the three main sticking points, most significantly on the disagreement over federalism (which would allow for semi-autonomous regions within the country). The other two areas of trouble are the mentioning of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party in the constitution and the division of power between the president, parliament and cabinet. Sunni leaders have threatened that a civil war could break out if all three parties do not agree on the constitution.
[This story was originally published on 08.25.05 at 9:54 am ET.]