The Pentagon will increase its force in Iraq to about 150,000 soldiers to offer security for the Jan. 30 election there, in part by using fresh fighters from Fort Bragg's 82nd Airborne Division.
About 1,500 Bragg soldiers will ship out before Christmas and stay into the spring. They will join another 10,400 service members from the Army and Marines who must extend their tours of duty.
The N.C. National Guard's 30th Heavy Separate Brigade is so far unaffected. That brigade has been in Iraq since last winter and is scheduled to return in January.
There are now about 138,000 U.S. service members in Iraq. The new deployments mean more soldiers will be in the country than at any time since the March 2003 invasion. The elevated troop level appears to be temporary.
"It's mainly to provide security for the elections, but it's also to keep up the pressure on the insurgency after the Fallujah operation," Brig. Gen. David Rodriguez of the Army's Joint Staff Operations Directorate said during a Pentagon news conference.
U.S. forces declared victory in Fallujah last week after an offensive to kill insurgents holed up in the city. More than 50 American soldiers and 1,000 Iraqis died in the fighting, which began in early November. Attacks and suicide bombings continue in Mosul, Baghdad and Kirkuk.
Despite the clashes, the Bush administration has pledged to help conduct the election -- saying Iraqis should select their own leaders -- and help restore order.
Leaders of Iraq's minority Sunni Muslims have been clamoring to delay the vote, saying the country remains too volatile for citizens to safely visit polling places. The Sunnis, who dominated during Saddam Hussein's regime, are complaining in part because they have much to lose to the larger Shiite population, said Michael Vickers, director of strategic studies for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington.
"Shiites are in favor of the election," Vickers said. "The big challenge is political right now."
The nation has been historically riven among Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. Saddam's iron grip bound them together, and now that he is gone, they are jockeying for power.
"Adding troops doesn't really change that equation," Vickers said. "I think it's as much a psychological impact as anything else."
The soldiers might help Iraqis feel safer about voting, said Christopher Hellman, a military policy analyst for Washington's Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation.
"We want to create an environment -- and this may be wishful thinking -- where Iraqis can participate in a truly open, democratic election," Hellman said. "There's a lot of people who want to vote, provided they can do it with safety."
'Heavily armed cops'
Soldiers from the 82nd probably will work alongside Iraqi forces during political rallies and voter registration drives as well as on election day, Hellman said. "Think of them as heavily armed cops."
Many will go to Baghdad to augment troops from the 1st Cavalry Division based in Fort Hood, Texas.
Fort Bragg will send the 2nd and 3rd Battalions of the 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment. About half have combat experience in Iraq, said Lt. Col. Thomas E. Hibert, a battalion commander. The troops have been through two intense training cycles since returning from the Middle East in February, he said, and have been educated on the latest insurgent tactics.
The 82nd Airborne always has one of its three brigades ready to take off within 18 hours of receiving orders, so the deployment wasn't a shock to many soldiers.
1st Sgt. James Argo, 37, of Kannapolis, said Wednesday that even before getting the order, he had been preparing his family for the possibility he wouldn't be around for the holidays.
"You just prepare them for Dad not being here for Christmas," Argo said. "It's not the first time."
A temporary increase
The 82nd Airborne soldiers have been ordered to stay up to four months, well past the scheduled election. But their presence should allow other units to come home sooner, Vickers said.
"This is a temporary spike," he said. "It's not sustainable over the long run."
By spring, troops whose tours were extended will rotate out, and the total number in Iraq might drop below 140,000, Rodriguez said.
The units whose tours are extended include troops from the 25th Infantry Division of Hawaii; the 1st Calvary Division from Fort Hood; the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit from Okinawa, Hawaii and California; and troops from a transportation company based in Germany, Rodriguez said.
The extensions mean several units will have been deployed up to 14 months. Many will be there until March.
Those from Fort Bragg are preparing themselves for long deployments. Sgt. Derek Bell, 23, of Madison, Fla., has been to Iraq before. Now he leaves behind a new wife who expects to deliver their child April 15.
"Hopefully I'll be back before the kid's born," Bell said. "But if I'm not, that's the way it is."
Staff writer Barbara Barrett can be reached at 829-4870 or email@example.com.