WASHINGTON (AP) — In a sign that the Iraq conflict is deepening, a senior officer said Wednesday that Army and Marine Corps units have begun receiving more tanks and other heavy armor.
The move is in response to the growing Iraqi insurgency and the lengthening list of U.S. casualties.
Maj. Gen. John Sattler, the operations chief for U.S. Central Command, told reporters at the Pentagon that when new Army and Marine Corps commanders arrived in Iraq in recent weeks, they saw a deteriorated security situation and decided more armor was needed for combat.
He provided few details but said more tanks and armored personnel carriers were requested by the Army’s 1st Infantry Division in north-central Iraq and the Marine Corps units operating in the Sunni Triangle west and north of Baghdad, including the city of Fallujah.
Some of the extra armor already has arrived, Sattler said, and some is on its way.
A defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the new vehicles include roughly two dozen M1 Abrams tanks, which are being transported from Germany to the 1st Infantry Division. The official did not have details on other movements of armored vehicles to Iraq, but suggested they were of a similar scope.
When they planned for their Iraq mission, commanders of the newly arrived units figured they should rely on the jeep-like Humvees, which have little or no armor protection but provide speed and agility.
“Counter-insurgency requires you to … actually engage and work with the population,” Sattler said, speaking by telephone from Central Command’s forward headquarters in the Persian Gulf. “That’s tough to do from inside a tank, a Bradley or an armored personnel carrier.”
But once the Marines lost any degree of control in Fallujah in late March and the anti-occupation violence flared elsewhere in Iraq in early April, U.S. commanders again changed their approach.
Tanks “send a very valuable message just by pulling one up to the front lines,” said Sattler.
April has been the bloodiest month for U.S. troops in Iraq since the invasion was launched in March 2003. It is difficult to determine an exact death count for April because of a time lag between the military’s announcement of fatal attacks and the Pentagon’s release of casualties’ names, but it appears that at least 120 U.S. troops have died so far this month. They recently have included a higher-than-average number of National Guard and Reserve troops.
Four members of the Arkansas National Guard were killed in Taji, Iraq, last Saturday, and on Monday a National Guardsman from Pennsylvania and a Reserve soldier from Maine were killed in Baghdad.
A total of 722 U.S. troops have died in Iraq since March 2003, according to the Pentagon’s count. That does not include two Department of the Army civilians who were killed last month.
When the Army rotated fresh units into Iraq this spring, the newly arrived forces left some of their tanks, Bradley infantry vehicles and armored personnel carriers at home, figuring they needed a higher proportion of Humvees to be light and more agile to deal with insurgents.
Gen. Larry Ellis, commander of Army Forces Command, recently told his superiors at Army headquarters that Humvees equipped with extra armor are inadequate in the face of insurgent attacks.
But Ellis issued a statement Wednesday that said the armored Humvee has “saved lives and prevented injury on numerous occasions and continues to be the best, immediately available solution to the challenges of the mission in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Gen. Paul Kern, commander of Army Material Command, which supplies the Humvees and the rest of the equipment used in Iraq, said in an interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday that U.S. commanders in Iraq have made “adjustments” that include requesting more heavy armored vehicles.
Kern said he could not discuss the details because it would reveal too much about the military’s operations in Iraq, but he said the change has had a ripple effect on the supply of spare parts.
Kern also said that when insurgents stepped up attacks early this month on U.S. military convoys bringing supplies north from Kuwait, U.S. commanders reduced the number of convoys for about a week. During the slowdown they improved security arrangements. As a result, the general said, in recent days there have been fewer losses along the main supply routes from Kuwait.
Alluding to the same problem, Sattler said an infantry battalion from the 2nd Infantry Division’s Stryker brigade was shifted from its usual operating area in northern Iraq to provide extra security along the southern supply routes from Kuwait.