US Army tours extended

Defence Secretary announced the new order in the latest move by the Pentagon to cope with the strains of fighting two wars simultaneously, while maintaining a higher troop level in Iraq as part of President George W Bush's revised strategy for stabilising Baghdad.

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"This policy is a difficult but necessary interim step," Mr Gates told a Pentagon news conference, adding that the goal is to eventually return to 12 months as the standard length of tour in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He said the new policy does not affect the other main components of the US ground force in Iraq: the Marines, whose standard tour is seven months, or the Army National Guard or Army Reserve, which will continue to serve 12 month tours.

US forces 'stretched'

Mr Gates acknowledged that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are making life difficult for many in the military.

"Our forces are stretched, there's no question about that," Gates said.

He said the new policy also seeks to ensure that all active-duty

Army units get at least 12 months at home between deployments. He said it would allow the Pentagon to maintain the current level of troops in Iraq for another year, although there has been no decision on future troop levels.

Soldiers will get an extra $US1,000 ($A1,212) a month for the three extra months they serve, he said.

Without changing the standard tour length to 15 months, the Army would have been forced to send five brigades to Iraq before they completed 12 months at home, Mr Gates said.

Some units' tours in Iraq had already been extended beyond 12 months by varying amounts. The new policy will make deployments more equitable and more predictable for soldiers and for their families, Mr Gates said.

"I think it is fair to all soldiers that all share the burden equally," he said.

There are currently 145,000 US troops in Iraq, and when the buildup is completed by June, there will be more than 160,000, officials calculate.

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