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Army to delay soldiers' exits

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- The Army will prohibit troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan from retiring or leaving the service for other reasons for up to 90 days after arriving at their home bases, military officials said Monday.

The American military is suffering stress from global deployments of tens of thousands of troops in the wake of the 2001 attacks on America.

An Army official said the latest temporary "stop loss" order was to preserve cohesion in units as they reconstitute after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Pentagon is preparing to begin replacing the roughly 123,000 U.S. troops serving in Iraq and 11,000 in Afghanistan -- most of them soldiers -- with fresh troops.

Among the first units rotating home beginning this month will be the 101st Airborne Division from Fort Campbell, Kentucky.

The Army planned to announce the move Monday, according to the defense officials who asked not to be identified.

There are 1.4 million active-duty troops in the American military, including 480,000 Army soldiers.

Some senior Army officers have privately called for increases in the number of troops in that service because they have borne the brunt of the deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has said he remains "absolutely open-minded" about a possible increase in the number of soldiers in the Army if internal Pentagon analyses show such a need exists.

But he has said he has seen no evidence of that need, and argued that "the addition of Army end-strength is not a near-term solution to the current stress on the force."

Some lawmakers of both parties in Congress also have argued that the Army is too small to perform its duties in Iraq, Afghanistan, South Korea and elsewhere, and needs thousands of more soldiers.

The military has issued numerous temporary "stop loss" orders in the past two years to keep troops from leaving at critical times and to make sure that services such as the Air Force retain personnel in key areas.

"This is only temporary to preserve unit stability," said one Pentagon official Monday.

"You don't want to have gaps in small units with soldiers leaving by twos and threes when their enlistment or contract is up immediately on returning to base."

"If we find that particular units are in good shape, then soldiers in those units could be allowed to leave [the service] in less time -- within 30 or 60 days," said another official.

Ted Carpenter, a defense analyst with the Cato Institute think tank, said the "stop loss" decision undercuts the concept of an all-volunteer military, which America has maintained for three decades.

"Clearly, if large numbers of personnel have their terms extended against their will, that violates the principle of volunteerism," Carpenter said.

"It also suggests just how strained the military is in trying to provide for the Iraqi occupation plus all the other U.S. obligations around the world."

Carpenter said if the personnel strains continue or worsen, the Pentagon may feel compelled to return to a military draft.

He suggested a scenario in which the military units that actually wage war would remain "all-volunteer" but a force of American peacekeeping troops would be created through military conscription.

Copyright 2004 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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