WASHINGTON — While all but a small number of U.S. troops will be out of Iraq by the end of the year, they won’t all be home for the holidays as President Barack Obama promised last month.
The Pentagon is poised to move at least 4,000 soldiers from Iraq to Kuwait at the end of the year, pending a final decision expected soon by Pentagon and Kuwaiti leaders, U.S. officials said Wednesday.
The move is part of a still-developing Pentagon strategy that ends the Iraq war but positions a strong U.S. force just across the border in Kuwait and across the region to reinforce the United States’ commitment to the Middle East and prevent a power vacuum when the tens of thousands of U.S. forces who have served in Iraq are gone.
According to officials, the 1st Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, which is currently in Iraq, will be shifted to Kuwait, where troops will be close enough to serve as a quick reaction force if needed in Iraq or any of the nearby countries. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the decision has not been finalized by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
The plan to beef up U.S. presence in Kuwait also must be approved by the Kuwaiti leaders, although most officials do not believe that will be a problem. The U.S. has had a substantial presence in Kuwait for years, even before the start of the Iraq war.
Other plans still under discussion would affect several Army National Guard units that are scheduled to go to Iraq in the coming weeks. It is not yet clear whether they will be told to go to Iraq and return home in two months or if they will simply stay home or be deployed elsewhere — such as Kuwait, other nations in the region or even other posts in the U.S.
Pentagon officials have been clear all along that they expect to continue and expand U.S. military relations with countries in the Middle East, particularly as a hedge against Iran. And Panetta has said that he expect that about 40,000 U.S. troops to be stationed across the Middle East after troops are pulled out of Iraq.
Over the next two months, the U.S. will methodically withdraw the remaining 34,000 or so American forces from Iraq as Obama pledged. The final exit date was sealed after months of intensive talks between Washington and Baghdad failed to reach agreement on conditions for leaving several thousand U.S. troops in Iraq as a training force. The U.S. also had been interested in keeping a small force to help the Iraqis deal with possible Iranian meddling.
So late last month, Obama announced that the eight-year Iraq war would be over by year’s end, and he declared that all U.S. troops “will definitely be home for the holidays.”
That vow is now changed a bit, as the 1st Cavalry Brigade, which is based at Fort Hood, Texas, will spend some months in Kuwait, while U.S. leaders grapple with how to redistribute troops around the region for the long term.
The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq was launched in March of 2003 after reports, later discredited, that the country was developing weapons of mass destruction. At its peak, the U.S. had more than 160,000 troops in Iraq, as forces battled a stubborn insurgency and worked to train and equip the Iraqi forces. More than 4,400 members of the military have been killed, and more than 32,000 have been wounded.
Roughly 150-200 U.S. troops will remain in Iraq as part of a normal embassy presence.
The U.S. already has about 23,000 troops in Kuwait, which serves as a key logistical base as troops move in and out of Iraq. But the U.S. has maintained a military presence there since before the start of the Iraq war in 2003.
During the Persian Gulf War in 1991, the U.S. played a major role in the liberation of Kuwait and has since kept as many as 5,000 troops there. At the same time, the U.S. helped Kuwait modernize its military and the two nations have conducted training exercises together along with other countries in the region.
Pentagon spokesmen George Little and Capt. John Kirby both said no final decisions had been made about U.S. troop levels in the region.