updated 3/15/2006 10:31:05 AM ET 2006-03-15T15:31:05

The U.S. military is dispatching an Army battalion of about 700 soldiers to Iraq from their base in Kuwait to provide extra security during the holiday of Ashura, three military officers said Wednesday.

The move, which has not been publicly announced, comes amid a spike in sectarian violence and expectations that it likely will remain a problem as fractious Iraqi political leaders attempt to form a new government.

The 1st Armored Division battalion is expected to move into Iraq in the next few days, one officer said. The two officers who confirmed the move spoke on condition of anonymity because it has not yet been officially announced.

Hundreds of people have been killed since the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite mosque in Samarra, creating concern that the country may be tipping toward civil war.

On Tuesday Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld hinted at the decision to send 700 extra soldiers to Iraq. He said Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. military officer in Iraq, “may decide he wants to bulk up slightly for the pilgrimage.”

The holiday, which ends March 20, includes pilgrimages to holy sites in Najaf and Karbala. Increased attacks marked the celebration during 2004 and 2005.

The mechanized infantry battalion that is being sent to Iraq is one of three from the 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division that originally were scheduled to deploy to Iraq but were instead held in Kuwait as a standby force in the event Gen. Casey decided he needed extra troops. It’s not clear how long the battalion will remain in Iraq, the officers said.

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