WASHINGTON - The Bush administration is quietly on track to nearly double the number of combat troops in Iraq this year, an analysis of Pentagon deployment orders showed Monday.
The actions could boost the number of combat soldiers from 52,500 in early January to as many as 98,000 by the end of this year if the Pentagon overlaps arriving and departing combat brigades.
Separately, when additional support troops are included in this second troop increase, the total number of U.S. troops in Iraq could increase from 162,000 now to more than 200,000 -- a record-high number -- by the end of the year.
The numbers were arrived at by an analysis of deployment orders by Hearst Newspapers.
"It doesn't surprise me that they're not talking about it," said retired Army Maj. Gen. William Nash, a former U.S. commander of NATO troops in Bosnia, referring to the Bush administration. "I think they would be very happy not to have any more attention paid to this."
The first surge was prominently announced by President Bush in a nationally televised address on Jan. 10, when he ordered five more combat brigades to join 15 brigades already in Iraq.
The buildup was designed to give commanders the 20 combat brigades Pentagon planners said were needed to provide security in Baghdad and western Anbar province.
Since then, the Pentagon has extended combat tours for units in Iraq from 12 months to 15 months and announced the deployment of additional brigades.
Taken together, the steps could put elements of as many as 28 combat brigades in Iraq by Christmas, according the deployment orders examined by Hearst Newspapers.
Army spokesman Lt. Col. Carl S. Ey said there was no effort by the Army to carry out "a secret surge" beyond the 20 combat brigades ordered by Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
"There isn't a second surge going on; we've got what we've got," Ey said. "The idea that there are ever going to be more combat brigades in theater in the future than the secretary of defense has authorized is pure speculation."
Ey attributed the increase in troops to "temporary increases that typically occur during the crossover period" as arriving combat brigades move into position to replace departing combat brigades.
He said that only elements of the eight additional combat brigades beyond the 20 already authorized would actually be in Iraq in December.
The U.S. Joint Forces Command, based in Norfolk, Va., that tracks combat forces heading to and returning from Iraq, declined to discuss unit-by-unit deployments.
"Due to operational security, we cannot confirm or discuss military unit movements or schedules," Navy Lt. Jereal Dorsey said in an e-mail.
The Pentagon has repeatedly extended unit tours in Iraq during the past four years to achieve temporary increases in combat power. For example, three combat brigades were extended up to three months in November 2004 to boost the number of U.S. troops from 138,000 to 150,000 before, during and after the Jan. 30, 2005, Iraqi national elections.
Lawrence Korb, an assistant defense secretary for manpower during the Reagan administration, said the Pentagon deployment schedule enables the Bush administration to achieve quick increases in combat forces in the future by delaying units' scheduled departures from Iraq and overlapping them with arriving replacement forces.
"The administration is giving itself the capability to increase the number of troops in Iraq," Korb said. "It remains to be seen whether they actually choose to do that."
Nash said the capability could reflect an effort by the Bush administration to "get the number of troops into Iraq that we've needed there all along."
© 2007 Hearst Communications Inc.