US sends 650 new troops to boost Iraq security
WASHINGTON, Mar 16 (Reuters) The United States has sent about 650 soldiers into Iraq from a force held in reserve in Kuwait to provide extra security during the formation of a new government and a Shi'ite mourning ritual, the military said.
Soldiers from a battalion task force from the 2nd Brigade of the 1st Armored Division have deployed into the Baghdad area and will conduct joint operations with U.S.-trained Iraqi government security forces, the military command in Iraq said in a statement.
The statement said the move was part of a broader plan that includes repositioning Iraqi forces as well as U.S. and allied troops in the run-up to next week's Shi'ite religious holiday Arbain and ''over the vulnerable period of the formation of the new Iraqi government.'' Amid worrisome sectarian violence, Iraqi leaders have failed to form a new government since the Dec. 15 parliamentary election. Top U.S. officials have urged the creation of a ''unity government'' distributing power among Iraq's rival Shi'ites, Sunnis and Kurds.
Maj. Timothy Keefe, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, said 650 soldiers were deployed into Iraq from Kuwait as part of the plan, dubbed ''Scales of Justice.'' The United States has about 133,000 troops in Iraq, the Pentagon said.
''I have discussed this with the Iraqi prime minister (Ibrahim al-Jaafari), and we found it prudent to provide this additional support,'' Army Gen. George Casey, top U.S. commander in Iraq, said in a statement. ''This short-term deployment will make a long-term contribution to Iraq's security and political progress.'' 30 TO 45 DAYS An Army official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the soldiers' deployment would be temporary and they would return to Kuwait in ''probably about 30 to 45 days.'' For three votes in Iraq last year, the United States boosted its troop presence to provide extra security.
Shi'ites Muslims mark Arbain early next week. The focus of the ceremonies is the Shi'ite holy city Kerbala, 70 miles (110 km) southwest of Baghdad.
Keefe said Arbain and the continuing process of assembling a new government are the type of events that could draw attacks by insurgents.
There was a spike in sectarian violence following last month's bombing of an important Shi'ite shrine in Samarra. Insurgents, believed to be primarily Sunni Muslims, in the past have attacked Shi'ites and Shi'ite sites. Shi'ites make up the majority in Iraq but were oppressed under Sunni leader Saddam Hussein, deposed by the US-led invasion in 2003.
Officials said Casey has not yet made recommendations to the Pentagon leadership on the possibility of reducing the size of the US force this year, and that he was expected to make a force size recommendation sometime this spring.
The 650 soldiers are from a ''call-forward'' force trained, ready and available in Kuwait for rapid reaction to problems in Iraq or for use to bolster security for certain milestones, officials said.
The Scales of Justice operation will be augmented by two Iraqi army battalions, three national police battalions and three US battalions, the military said.
REUTERS SK RAI0452