Hundreds More U.S. Troops Headed to Iraq

At a time when U.S. military commanders are considering reducing troop levels in Iraq, ABCNEWS has learned the Pentagon plans to send an additional combat battalion of 650 troops into Iraq.

The troops would help prevent acts of violence that could mar two major upcoming events, the seating of the Iraqi parliament and a major Shiite religious holiday.

A military official says the extra troops will remain in Iraq for "a matter of weeks." This official said there has been no discussion of increasing the total number of troops in theater beyond current levels.

The troops are part of the 1st Armored Division's 3,500 man Second Brigade which has been in Kuwait, standing by to rush combat troops into Iraq on short notice. This brigade has come to be known as the "ready brigade" ever since their original deployment orders to Iraq were changed late last year. A military official says the decision to send the additional troops was made over the last few days.

Key Political and Religious Events

The force would primarily provide security in coming days as the new Iraqi parliament convenes on Thursday and for Sunday's Shiite holiday of Arba'een in the holy city of Karbala. Arba'een concludes the 40-day Ashura holiday for Shiite Muslims.

In addition to providing protection for a crucial political event, officials say they don't want a repeat of the deadly attacks on Shiite pilgrims that marked the two previous annual pilgrimages to Karbala. "It's an opportunity to launch a spectacular attack," said one military official, who asked not to be identified.

"The intent is to 'lock it down' to provide that extra measure of protection to prevent the bad guys from doing what they did in Samarra," the official said, referring to the bombing of the Golden Mosque there that launched a wave of sectarian violence.

"These guys have revealed their cards and are aware they're able to get the kind of reaction they want ... we don't need something like this happening again."

Earlier in the day, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had hinted to reporters that troop levels in Iraq might increase slightly in coming days because of pilgrimages connected to the Ashura holiday. Rumsfeld said Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. military officer in Iraq, "may decide he wants to bulk up slightly for the pilgrimage."

Officials downplayed the new deployment, saying the forces had been stationed in Kuwait for just such a circumstance.

The number of U.S. troops in Iraq averages 133,000, though on any given day the total numbers could vary by as much as 1,000 due to ongoing troop rotations. In that context, the extra 650 troops doesn't appear to be noteworthy, but they are the first combat troops not involved in a troop rotation to be sent into Iraq since the January elections.