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Military Quietly Poised for Iraq

Strategy: U.S. forces positioned around the Mideast could deploy in as little as two months, much faster than during Desert Shield.


WASHINGTON — As the debate intensifies on whether to invade Iraq, the Pentagon has quietly positioned its forces to be ready to move against Saddam Hussein in as little as two months.

Although President Bush continued his efforts Monday to rally support for a campaign against the Iraqi leader, a military strike is unlikely to happen that quickly, observers say. The administration, for instance, has yet to formally request basing and flyover rights from the dozens of countries on which a military operation would depend.

Unlike the last time it invaded Iraq, however, the military seems prepared to act. The U.S. has forces, weaponry and supplies to equip 30,000 troops already in the region, while 150,000 or more fully equipped troops who would be needed to mount a full-scale invasion could be routed to the region well before Christmas.

The ability to move quickly into Iraq is not the result of any recent overt moves of troops or equipment. Although the military has recently signed big contracts for commercial air and sea cargo space and has been replenishing its bomb supplies, it appears to have engaged in relatively little activity at its bases and camps in the countries surrounding Iraq that had not been in the works for several years.

The military has not only maintained its bases throughout the Persian Gulf since 1991 but has expanded them and built new ones. And it has made vast improvements in its ability to transport heavy materiel by sea and air.

The Bush administration's diplomacy on an Iraq campaign is moving at an urgent pace. On Monday, Bush met in Detroit with Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, who has been among the most upfront of the U.S. allies in opposing military action against Hussein.

Earlier in the day, Bush made a series of telephone calls seeking to round up support. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Bush spoke with President Ahmet Necdet Sezer of Turkey, which could be a key staging area for a military offensive against Iraq; Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who also is president of the European Union; and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Although there was little public indication of growing support, Fleischer said "budding" signs suggest that Bush's effort is making headway.

Since its difficult preparation for the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when the U.S. needed six months to move its ground forces across the world and mass them on Iraq's borders, the military has steadily increased the number of troops and amount of equipment it maintains at the ready in and around the Persian Gulf.

More Efficient Ships

To move still more equipment and supplies to the region, the military has bought and built more, faster and better ships and aircraft--enough to cut by more than two-thirds the time it should take to deploy a large military force to Iraq.

The ships can be unloaded much more rapidly than the cargo ships that were used to equip troops in the Gulf War, which relied on massive cranes to painstakingly lift tanks and other heavy gear out of their holds. Once in port, the new ships' ramps come down, and workers drive vehicles off.

Other, less obvious advances cut deployment time. In 1991, troops unloading ships weren't armed with manifests detailing what each container held, said retired Army Lt. Gen. William G. "Gus" Pagonis, who masterminded logistics during the Gulf War. That left troops digging through each container to find the equipment they most needed. Today, port personnel have computerized manifests sent to them before a ship arrives.

"A war in Iraq is not going to be quick and dirty, but the logistics of supporting one are a whole lot quicker now than they were," Pagonis said. "We can do it, and we can do it faster and better than we did the first time. We really learned some lessons."

Meanwhile, the sheer tonnage of U.S. tanks, fighting vehicles, armored personnel carriers and other heavy equipment already standing at the ready in Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and elsewhere in the Middle East is startling.

Before the Gulf War, almost none of it was based in the region.

"We have done a lot with pre- positioned stocks in the gulf, making sure they're accessible and that they are in the right spot to support whatever the president wants to do," Army Secretary Thomas E. White said last week.

Today, equipment for two Army heavy brigades is in Kuwait and Qatar, including 230 M-1A1 Abrams tanks, 120 M-2A2 Bradley fighting vehicles, 200 armored personnel carriers, 50 mortars and 40 155-millimeter howitzers. Warehouses in Kuwait and Qatar hold enough food and fuel to support two brigades of 5,000 troops each for a month.

A $200-million Army headquarters opened for business this year near the village of Arifjan, south of Kuwait City. It will be a permanent home for about 10,000 noncombat Army personnel who have been based at Kuwait's Camp Doha since early this year.

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