US Army troops in Iraq head to Afghanistan

By Chelsea J. Carter
Associated Press / April 21, 2009
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BAGHDAD - Only in Iraq a few weeks, nearly 500 US Army combat engineers who specialize in clearing roads of explosives learned they were being shipped off to southern Afghanistan, one of the clearest signs of America's shifting wartime priorities.

The transfer, which moved into its final stages yesterday, is the largest movement of personnel and equipment from Iraq as President Obama puts the focus on the fight in the Taliban heartland.

"We are probably going to be the beginning of the influx you are going to see to Afghanistan," Lieutenant Colonel Kevin Landers, commander of the Fort Carson, Colo.-based 4th Engineer Battalion, said as crews packed crates and cleaned vehicles for the flight to Kandahar.

It's now clear some of the troops and firepower will flow directly from Iraq, where the Pentagon plans to draw down gradually its more than 132,000 personnel before the withdrawal of all combat forces by September 2010. Obama has ordered 17,000 more US soldiers and Marines to Afghanistan to bolster the 38,000 American troops battling the resurgent Taliban.

"We are going to take this footprint out of Iraq," said Landers, whose battalion received word of its reassignment last month just after taking command of clearing roads in Baghdad of bombs and debris.

Since then, his troops have conducted routine operations while preparing for their departure. They won't be replaced - another sign of America's evolving military map.

By the end of next year, the US military presence could be down to about 30,000 to 50,000 personnel to train and advise Iraqi security forces. Plans call for all American forces to leave Iraq by the end of 2012.

Military officials have publicly said they would not redirect large numbers of soldiers directly from Iraq to Afghanistan. Quietly, though, the military has been sending troops and equipment for months.

In late March, the Fort Sill, Okla.-based 100th Brigade Support Battalion was moved from the giant US base in Balad, 50 miles north of Baghdad, to southern Afghanistan.