FORT HOOD, Texas — One of the Army's most modern divisions began moving out Thursday to Kuwait, where it will bolster the U.S.-led war in Iraq with 30,000 troops equipped with hundreds of armored fighting vehicles and a squadron of attack helicopters.
Some 500 soldiers were flown out to prepare the way for the deployment of Task Force Ironhorse, the bulk of which is made up of the 4th Infantry Division. The division's 12,000 other soldiers based here at Fort Hood and nearly 4,000 others at Fort Carson, Colo., are to begin following later this week.
Ships carrying the task force's equipment are expected to start arriving in Kuwait's port next week. If the ships are given priority to unload, commanders say 15 of them could be unloaded within seven days, and the division's first combat group could become combat-ready within another three days.
The order to move ends weeks of waiting for the troops at camps Hood and Carson.
American war planners had given the division the critical task of going through Turkey to open a northern front against Saddam Hussein's regime. But the plan was abandoned last week after Washington gave up on waiting for Ankara to vote to allow American troops to use its soil to stage the attack.
The 30 ships carrying the division's 14,000 pieces of equipment, after waiting off Turkey for weeks, were told to head for Kuwait.
The division boasts more than 200 M1-A2 tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles and four battalions equipped with Paladin self-propelled howitzers and multiple launch rocket systems. It has about 20 of the advanced AH-64D Apache Longbow attack helicopters, and is the Army's only fully "digitized division," meaning all vehicles are linked by a computer that lets commanders see where their assets are and direct them toward enemy formations.
"The full combat power will come to bear quickly and decisively upon an enemy who has no idea of the combined weaponry getting ready to strike him," division commander Maj. Gen. Raymond Odierno told his soldiers at a departure ceremony.
Odierno said he has not yet received orders on where his troops will be used.
Aside from the troops from camps Hood and Carson, 10 other bases will send personnel attached to the 4th division to fill out Task Force Ironhorse, which Odierno said totals about 30,000.
That would significantly boost the current deployment: 250,000 U.S. troops deployed in the Iraq theater, including close to 90,000 now in Iraq itself.
The division still could head to northern Iraq to back up some 1,000 paratroopers from the Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade who touched down Wednesday in an airstrip 30 miles from the Turkish border.
Elements of the division could be airlifted to the north. More likely, however, the division will drive its vehicles or load them onto heavy equipment transporters that are being brought in on the same flotilla of ships.
"As a general rule, you don't move heavy mechanized forces by aircraft, though that doesn't mean you can't do it," said public affairs officer Maj. Josslyn Aberle. "It's just too hard to tell right now what we'll be doing when we get there."
The division could also help fight pockets of resistance in southern Iraq bypassed in the initial thrust toward Baghdad. If the division sees combat, it will be the first time since Vietnam.
At the camps in Colorado and Texas, frustration over whether or not the deployment would come turned to excitement.
"It's like we made the football team and made the varsity, but we're riding the bench," Spc. Jason Wood of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team at Camp Carson said of the weeks of waiting.
"Right now I never thought I'd say it, but I'm ready for him to go because the waiting has been the hardest part," said Brandy Mayle, 21, whose husband Donald Mayle, 23, was leaving Fort Hood. "I'm just trying to stay strong for my son."