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Report: U.S. troops must decrease to maintain military readiness

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A new report from the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office says that under current policies, the U.S. military can maintain current troop strength -- 180,000 in and around Iraq -- only until March 2004.

After that time, the report said, a U.S. occupation force numbering between 38,000 and 64,000 personnel could remain in the country indefinitely -- at a cost of up to $12 billion per year.

The report was done at the request of Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, a harsh critic of how the Bush administration has conducted the war and subsequent occupation in Iraq.

In a statement, Byrd said the report is "quantified evidence that the long-term occupation is straining our forces close to the breaking point."

The CBO analysis notes that about 180,000 U.S. military personnel are involved in the occupation -- about 150,000 in Iraq itself. It says the CBO made no assumptions about how long the occupation might last or about the size of the force that might be necessary, but instead "focused on determining how large an occupation the U.S. military could sustain in Iraq indefinitely while still maintaining acceptable levels of military readiness and not jeopardizing the quality of the all-volunteer force..."

The CBO analysis states: "The active Army would be unable to sustain an occupation force of the present size beyond about March 2004 if it chose not to keep individual units deployed to Iraq for longer than one year without relief (an assumption consistent with DoD's current planning)," the report says.

"In the six to 12 months after March, the level of U.S. forces in Iraq would begin to decline as units that had been deployed for a year were relieved and were not replaced on a one-for-one basis. After the winter of 2004-2005, the United States could sustain --indefinitely, if need be -- an occupation force of 38,000 to 64,000 military personnel using only combat units from the Army's active component (and some support units from the reserves), the option that constitutes the base case in this analysis."

With a force of that size, the occupation would cost $8 billion to $12 billion per year, CBO estimates. A larger force of 67,000 to 106,000 troops could be sustained in Iraq, the report concludes, if the Pentagon employed Marine Corps units, Army Special Forces groups and combat units from the Army National Guard -- at a cost of $14 billion to $19 billion a year.

The report states that by increasing the overall size of the Army -- by adding two new divisions, for example -- the United States could sustain an occupation force of 85,000 to 129,000 personnel, at a yearly cost of up to $29 billion.

The Pentagon opposes adding new divisions and is predicting the need for U.S. forces in Iraq will decrease as the security situation improves, other countries contribute soldiers and Iraqis take over military and police duties.

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