BAGHDAD – Only in Iraq a few weeks, nearly 500 U.S. 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 Monday, is the largest movement so far 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," Lt. Col. 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 gradually draw down its more than 132,000 personnel before the withdrawal of all combat forces by September 2010.
Obama has ordered 17,000 more U.S. soldiers and Marines to Afghanistan to bolster the 38,000 American troops already 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 U.S. 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 U.S. base in Balad, 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of Baghdad, to southern Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, a stream of military transport planes has been ferrying helicopters, vehicles, weapons and other equipment from Iraq to Afghanistan.
But this week's airlift of the 4th Engineer Battalion "is the largest unit movement of personnel and gear from Iraq to Afghanistan to date," said Lt. Col. Dave Dancer, operations chief for the 225th Engineer Brigade, which oversees the 4th Engineers.
The battalion arrived in Iraq in late February. Four days after taking command in mid-March, it received new orders: pack up and compete its 12-month deployment in Afghanistan, said Landers, 42, of Atlanta.
The battalion began sending troops and equipment — everything from giant tow trucks and bulldozers to desks and chairs — last week, said Command Sgt. Major Anthony Archer, 41, of Austin, Texas. The transition is expected to be completed within weeks.
On Monday, soldiers were busy cleaning wrecker trucks, which are used to haul damaged or broken down military equipment, before loading them on airplanes to send later in the week.
Sgt. Tony Hardy, 38, of Fountain, Colo., said his troops hadn't had time to think too much about the move.
"Just keep them busy. Keep them working and it keeps their mind on what we have got to do and not what they may have to do," Hardy said.
Landers and Archer broke the news to the soldiers in late March at Camp Victory, the main U.S. military base in Iraq.
"We told them what we had in front of us ... and that we needed them to pull together as a team," Landers said. Families in Colorado were later told in a video conference.
Landers said his soldiers will face challenges with the new assignment — from new terrain to a new enemy to new tactics.
But he said the battalion drilled at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, Calif., where troops are put through combat scenarios meant to replicate hazards faced in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"There wasn't necessarily a signal, something that said we were going to go," Pfc. Angela Dubose, 25, of Duluth, Ga., said of the unit's new orders. "But it sort of made sense."
She said she broke the news to her family over the phone.
"When I left, I told my family to expect the unexpected," she said.
Although violence is down sharply across Iraq, a gradual rise in attacks recently has brought worries the relative calm may not last.
A suicide bomber wearing an Iraqi army uniform attacked a U.S. military delegation visiting the mayor of violence-wracked Baqouba on Monday, killing three Iraqi civilians and wounding at least eight American soldiers as well as three Iraqi policemen and other people.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Robert Wood said two of the dead Iraqis worked for a U.S.-financed provincial reconstruction team. He said an American working with the team and a British adviser were wounded.
Police officials said the bomber was disguised as a soldier — a tactic used before to pass through checkpoints — but U.S. forces have been attacked by actual members of Iraqi security forces as well.
The bombing occurred as a group of Iraqi officials, led by Mayor Abdullah al-Hiyali, waited at the main gate of the municipal building to greet the U.S. soldiers, said Raad al-Dahalaki, the deputy mayor of Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad.
"When the U.S. soldiers left their vehicles and started to walk toward the building, a man wearing a military uniform mingled with the crowd of U.S. soldiers and Iraqi policemen and set off the explosion," al-Dahalaki said.