FORT STEWART, Ga. - The U.S. military's top uniformed officer told an audience of Army troops yesterday that the unpopular "stop-loss" policy won't end anytime soon, and he predicted a small rise in the number of troops forced to serve past their re-enlistment or retirement dates.

Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told an audience of 600 soldiers at Fort Stewart that he understands the strain the stop-loss practice and multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan have placed on service members.

"I would like to see an end to the stop-loss policy, but I don't see it happening in the near future," Mullen said during a question-and-answer session with the troops. "I see a slight growth in the next couple of years based on predictions right now."

Mullen said about 11,000 Army troops are now serving under the stop-loss policy, which critics have referred to as a "backdoor draft." Retaining troops beyond the date they're due to leave the military has been necessary to keep units stocked with trained soldiers ready to deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan, he said.

The stop-loss question came up as Mullen spoke to soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Division who returned from a 15-month deployment to Iraq recently.

The 20,000-soldier division was the first tapped by the Army to serve a third tour in Iraq since 2003, and about half the soldiers in the room raised their hands when Mullen asked how many had deployed three times or more.

Concerned about burnout among the ranks, the Army is working to grow by about 22,000 soldiers, to 547,000 total on active duty. The expansion will make it easier to cease the stop-loss policy, Mullen said, as well as extend the time troops spend at home between deployments to two years rather than one.

But that won't happen for up to three years, Mullen said. *