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U.S. Troops Battle Insurgents To Keep Baghdad Roads Open

By Eric Schmitt

The New York Times -- WASHINGTON

U.S. troops in Iraq are battling insurgents to keep open vital military supply lines in and out of Baghdad. The attacks on the supply lines are posing new hazards to civilian contractors who operate many of the convoys and siphoning short-handed combat forces away from the main fight against militants, senior commanders said Monday.

Securing the major roadways has become a high priority, top officers said. Over the weekend, U.S. forces fought pitched battles to clear the main north-south and east-west routes to and from Baghdad, and also near Fallujah, for trucks to haul food, fuel, water and ammunition to soldiers and Marines, they said. Many convoys have been delayed; others suspended, officials said.

The attacks on convoys, along with sabotage to roads and bridges, have opened yet another front in the week-old upswing in violence in Iraq, and has complicated the military’s efforts to quell the unrest and resupply U.S. troops.

The growing concerns over securing supply lines in Iraq came as Gen. John P. Abizaid, the U.S. commander in the Middle East, told reporters that he had formally requested from the Pentagon the equivalent of two more combat brigades -- as many as 15,000 to 20,000 -- to keep U.S. forces in Iraq at about 130,000 for the foreseeable future. Troop levels had been scheduled to decline to about 115,000 during a troop rotation now winding down.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who had signaled last week that such a step was in the offing, is considering options to honor the request, from extending the tour of 1st Armored Division soldiers now in Iraq to drawing on Marines or soldiers elsewhere. Rumsfeld could decide as early as Tuesday, defense officials said.

“We’ve had to take extraordinary steps to get stuff to them, fighting to open up some of the routes,” Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the deputy director of military operations, said in a telephone interview from Baghdad.

Kimmitt told reporters in Baghdad earlier on Monday that none of the routes in Iraq were now classified by the military as “black” or “red,” meaning too dangerous to use. But he said most were “amber,” a classification that means convoy operators assume “a certain measure of risk.” He added, “It is certainly not green yet.”

The risks to civilian contractors and military convoys moving supplies from Kuwait and around Baghdad have become menacingly clear. Two U.S. troops and seven employees of the American contractor Kellogg, Brown & Root are missing after an attack on Friday on a fuel convoy near Abu Ghraib, west of Baghdad. Military officials said on Monday they feared the nine people had been taken hostage by militants.