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US force in Iraq at 140,000, most since January

Written by: Staff

WASHINGTON, Aug 31 (Reuters) The United States has expanded its force in Iraq to 140,000 troops, the most since January and 13,000 more than five weeks ago, the Pentagon said today, amid relentless violence in Baghdad and elsewhere.

This follows July's decision by commanders to augment the US military presence in Baghdad to try to curb escalating sectarian violence that has heightened concern about all-out civil war in Iraq.

As American troops continue to fight a tenacious insurgency nearly 3 1/2 years into the war, US military deaths in Iraq reached at least 62 in August -- increasing from 43 in July and ending three straight monthly declines.

August's total still was about average for a war in which about 64 US troops have died per month. There have been 2,635 US military deaths since war began in March 2003, and another 19,773 troops have been wounded in action, the Pentagon said.

Recent moves including the Pentagon's July 27 decision to delay for up to four months the scheduled departure from Iraq of about 4,000 soldiers from an Alaska-based brigade have indicated significant US troop cuts are unlikely in the near future.

The Pentagon said the US force, which stood at 127,000 on July 25, now numbers 140,000.

A defence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the US force likely will remain at about the current level in the coming months, but could shrink a bit by the end of the year depending on conditions in Iraq.

The arrival of fresh troops as part of the routine rotation of US forces also has contributed to the current increase because some of those they are replacing have not yet left, officials said.

This summer's expansion of the US force came in response to a surge of violence particularly in the capital -- much of it between Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims.

US military officers in Baghdad have said violence including murders declined in August from July's high levels but that there are still about 56 attacks per day in the capital.

President George W Bush, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Army Gen George Casey, the top US commander in Iraq, all have expressed a desire to reduce the US presence in Iraq if Iraqi security and political conditions permit.

Casey yesterday said he foresaw Iraqi government security forces assuming control of security in their own country within 12 to 18 months with ''very little'' support from US-led forces. But Casey said it was not clear when Iraqi troops would be able to go it alone and the United States could start withdrawing troops.

As recently as June, when the US force stood at 125,000 with 14 combat brigades, Casey offered a plan to reduce by two brigades -- roughly 3,500 each -- this fall, with perhaps two more gone by December. His plan envisioned the US force shrinking to five or six combat brigades by December 2007.

Currently all or parts of 18 combat brigades are in Iraq, according to the Pentagon.

The US force in Iraq peaked last October and December at around 160,000 troops to help protect two Iraqi elections.

Reuters SRS VP0206

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