About 650 Baumholder-based 1st Armored Division troops are deploying to Baghdad as U.S. commanders in Iraq temporarily bolster troop levels during a potentially volatile period, officials confirmed Wednesday.

A battalion task force from the 2nd Brigade, 1st AD — part of Central Command’s “call-forward force” in Kuwait since its deployment in November — will add to security during a religious pilgrimage period that started last Friday and runs through March 20.

The move into Iraq — part of “Operation Scales of Justice” — also addresses what U.S. officials term “a vulnerable period of formation for the new Iraqi government.”

A source within Multi-National Force-Iraq confirmed that some 2nd Brigade soldiers were already in Baghdad. The source, who declined to be identified because permission had not been granted to speak officially about the matter, said that the soldiers would be doing joint operations with Iraqi security forces.

American soldiers also will replace Iraqi forces, which will be “repositioned,” according to an MNF-I press release put out Wednesday. However, two Iraqi army battalions, three Iraqi police battalions and three battalions from coalition countries will augment the operation.

The 2nd Brigade mission in Iraq is projected to last about 30 days, according to Army officials.

Several brigade spouses said Wednesday that communications with their soldiers had been cut off, indicating a move into Iraq.

“1st Armored Division continues to support CDR, CENTCOM and will continue to keep our families and Soldiers informed on the most current developments on all our units’ activities in support of OIF 05-07,” Maj. Mike Indovina, a division spokesman in Wiesbaden, said in an e-mail response to questions.

“I have discussed this with the Iraqi prime minister and we found it prudent to provide this additional support,” Gen. George W. Casey Jr., Multi-National Force commander is quoted as saying in the news release. “This short-term deployment will make a long-term contribution to Iraq’s security and political progress.

“We called forces forward to provide support to the ISF for a safe observance of the Arbaeen religious holiday and the formation of the new Iraqi Government,” Casey said.

The religious pilgrimage comes roughly three weeks after the bombing of the Al-Askari mosque in Samarra, a revered Shiite shrine. The attack sparked a wave of sectarian violence that threatened to escalate into civil war.

Increased attacks were recorded during the same religious celebration during 2004 and 2005.

Troops from the Baumholder-based 2nd Brigade have been in Kuwait since November. The unit has been held in reserve, available should crisis erupt in Iraq. The unit was given warning orders immediately after the shrine attack, but did not move into Iraq.

Not all Baumholder-based 2nd Brigade units are in Kuwait. Units from 1st Battalion, 6th Infantry Regiment already are in central Iraq, attached to the 101st Airborne Division. Other brigade units in Iraq include parts of 1st Battalion, 94th Field Artillery, also based in Baumholder.

Troops from the Friedberg-based 1st Brigade have been in northern Iraq since January, and this is the second division deployment to Iraq since the invasion three years ago.

Keeping 2nd Brigade in Kuwait was one-half of the initial drawdown of forces announced by the Pentagon late last year. Another U.S. Army brigade that was scheduled to be in Iraq is being held at its home base in the U.S. The 1st Armored troops had been conducting training drills on ranges in the northern Kuwait desert since deploying last fall.

On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld hinted at the move into Iraq, saying, “We move troops in and out depending on events, like we did for the referendum, the election.

“There’s a pilgrimage coming up. We may very well — General Casey may decide he wants to bulk up slightly for the pilgrimage. And we’re continuing to pull troops down. And we’re continuing to shift our weight, as we’ve said, between the combat patrol aspects of it, over to the training and the equipping and providing the enablers.”

The American troop presence in Iraq stood at 133,000 on Tuesday, according to Pentagon statistics.

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Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

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