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War Preparations Escalate in Gulf

Movement of troops, equipment into region takes on new urgency after U.N. mandate.

November 10, 2002|Esther Schrader | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon has been moving ships, fighter jets, bombers and artillery into the Persian Gulf region in preparation for a possible war with Iraq, bolstering an already hefty force in the region.

And the preparations, already well underway, take on new urgency with the United Nations' decision to dispatch inspectors to Baghdad to hunt for weapons of mass destruction.

The resolution adopted unanimously by the Security Council on Friday authorizes new weapons inspections in Iraq, not war. Several council members said after their votes that they believed the resolution will prevent war, not trigger it. President Bush, too, said Iraqi President Saddam Hussein now has one last chance to hand over banned weapons.

But the president also made clear that the United States is prepared to act as enforcer if Iraq does not comply. The New York Times and Reuters news service reported Saturday that Bush has approved a war plan that calls for a land, sea and air force of at least 200,000 troops who would quickly capture footholds in the country.

About 48,000 U.S. military personnel and 400 aircraft are already stationed in the Middle East and Central Asia, not counting troops involved in the Afghanistan campaign. So much firepower is arrayed within hours of Iraq's borders that the U.S. could launch a small strike force backed by air power into the nation within weeks of being told to do so by the White House.

But current and former defense officials say that is not the military's preferred option.

"We could always do something right away, but the question is the risks and whether we are willing to take them," said a retired Army general with close ties to decision-makers at the Pentagon. "I don't think the administration can afford to fail here. That means taking the time, at least another month, to move more heavy forces into the area."

Unlike the 1991 Persian Gulf War, which focused primarily on destroying Hussein's military assets and troops, the emphasis this time is expected to be on decapitating the Iraqi government by targeting Hussein's institutional power base, including presidential palaces, military and security police facilities, and bases.

Particular attention would be given to bombing Hussein's hometown of Tikrit.

Many former defense officials and military analysts say an invasion would include a large ground force of two or three Army heavy divisions -- each of which typically includes more than 400 tanks and armored vehicles -- along with a 17,000-soldier light division and a 45,000-member Marine expeditionary force.

Any attack would be bolstered by large naval and air forces. The operation probably would include intense air attacks, followed by a combined airborne and ground assault on strategic targets, including Iraqi air defenses and weapons sites.

Those strikes would be carried out by cruise missiles and by fighter planes and bombers carrying precision-guided bombs flying out of bases in the region and from aircraft carriers.

The armed forces have been preparing to fight Iraq again since the Gulf War ended 11 years ago. The U.S. has maintained forces, weaponry and supplies to equip 30,000 troops in the region. It has expanded bases in the Persian Gulf and built new ones, and made vast improvements in its ability to transport heavy equipment and supplies by sea and air.

In the last several months, the Pentagon has gone still further. The Navy has juggled training and deployment schedules so that five or six aircraft-carrier battle groups could be in the region in December. The 600-strong core of the U.S. Central Command's headquarters staff is flying out from Tampa, Fla., within weeks to set up a new military operations center at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. Supplies and state-of-the-art electronic equipment to support that force were loaded a few weeks ago onto two fast military cargo ships that steamed through the Suez Canal last week.

Also making its way toward the region is a third ship, the transport ship Bellatrix, carrying huge portable bridges capable of transiting heavy armor and troops across the Euphrates to Baghdad.

On the British island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, hangars are being hastily constructed for B-2 bombers, allowing the Pentagon to station the bat-winged, radar-deflecting aircraft for the first time overseas instead of at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri.

The military is "already on a glide path of being able to move within a short time from when they are told to do so," said Clark Murdoch, a former Air Force deputy director of strategic planning who is now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "But I imagine that with this Security Council vote, that will accelerate. Clearly, the military is positioning itself for the potential of going to war with Iraq."

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