The U.S. military has temporarily sent about 700 additional troops into Iraq to help provide security for observances of a Muslim holiday that falls next Monday, and for the first meeting of Iraq's new parliament, which is scheduled for Sunday.
A statement issued by the coalition command in Baghdad says the battalion was sent in from Kuwait, where it was part of a force ready to respond to any security needs in Iraq on short notice. The statement says the additional troops are needed for what it calls a "short-term deployment," as part of a broader effort by Iraqi and coalition forces to improve security for Sunday's first session of the new Iraqi parliament and Monday's Arba'een holiday.
The 40-day period from the Ashura holiday to Arba'een is a particularly tense time for Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims because it recalls the killings that caused the split in the religion more than 1,300 years ago. The killings took place in the Iraqi city of Karbala, and Shi'ites traditionally make pilgrimages to the town during this holiday.
The holiday period has coincided with increased sectarian violence in Iraq in recent years, and particularly this year. Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman says the additional troop deployment in Baghdad is part of the coalition's response.
"We've witnessed a certain amount of secular fighting that has been going on," he says. "This is a religious holiday. I think that the commanders on the ground are certainly going to take that into consideration as they plan for setting the conditions for the peaceful observance."
The additional deployment comes as the coalition commander, General George Casey, is considering whether to recommend a further reduction in overall U.S. troop strength in Iraq. The general's recommendation is expected in the next two to three months. There are currently about 133,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, following a reduction of about 5,000 earlier this year.
General Casey's boss, Central Command chief General John Abizaid, told a congressional committee Wednesday that the recent increase in sectarian violence is worrying, but he believes Iraqi society can get through it.
"I think the worst case is that you move toward civil war because the government can't come together. And if the government can't come together, you then have to be concerned about whether or not the armed forces will stay together, and the other institutions," he said. "But I think we're an awful long ways away from that."
General Abizaid stressed that the key to getting Iraq through this difficult period, and to continuing the progress in building its security forces, is the formation of a national unity government. He said he believes such a government will emerge from the current political squabbling.