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Marines to Start War Games Near Iraq-Kuwait Frontier

Military: In Pentagon's latest show of muscle in region, 1,000 troops are landing in gulf today.

September 24, 2002|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ABOARD THE USS MOUNT VERNON — A thousand combat Marines are going ashore in Kuwait today for a long-planned desert warfare exercise that has taken on added significance because of the standoff between the U.S. and Iraq.

The troops, from the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit at Camp Pendleton, will train with Kuwaiti soldiers in the flat, sandy wasteland near the border with Iraq. The outskirts of Baghdad are only about 300 miles away.

The decision to move forward with the exercise is the Pentagon's latest show of military muscle in the region. In recent weeks, the U.S. military has been building on already significant levels of troops and equipment it has positioned in the countries and seas around Iraq.

The permanent U.S. military presence in the region is in stark contrast to its relative absence 12 years ago in the months leading up to Operation Desert Storm. At that time--shortly after the end of the Cold War--far more of the Pentagon's resources were still deployed in Europe.

But for much of the last decade, the Pentagon has based more than 20,000 American military personnel within close striking distance of Iraq, along with heavy equipment for at least four armored brigades and Patriot antimissile batteries to protect them.

In addition, senior defense officials say elite special operations troops this month began training alongside CIA units that could be used in covert counter-terrorism operations within Iraq.

The Navy has accelerated training and maintenance schedules for many of its ships, including three aircraft carrier battle groups based on the West Coast, so they could be ordered to steam toward the Persian Gulf on short notice, a senior Navy official said.

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More Troops in Kuwait

Several thousand heavily armed Army soldiers also are moving into Kuwait as part of regularly scheduled exercises or troop replacements, while about 600 military planners from the U.S. Central Command, based in Tampa, Fla., are now training in Qatar.

The Pentagon says the planners have deployed to the Persian Gulf to test the command's ability to set up a headquarters in a crisis. But senior Pentagon officials say the planners could remain in Qatar to establish a new forward headquarters in the region at Al Udeid Air Base outside Doha, the capital.

The Air Force is also taking steps to prepare for a war, augmenting the more than 200 warplanes already based in the region to enforce the "no-fly" zones over southern and northern Iraq. The Pentagon disclosed recently that it had asked Britain for permission to base B-2 stealth bombers at its air base on the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.

U.S. officials also say they have switched strategies to defend pilots enforcing the no-fly zones. Instead of going after guns and radar that could be used to target U.S. or British pilots, they are aiming at command and communications links, a strategy that might be more damaging to Iraq's ability to fight off an invasion.

Senior officials say the arrival of fresh units in the region is not in itself unusual. The exercises have been in the works for years. But the officials acknowledge that by ordering other units to stay put rather than rotate out, the military could easily enhance the sizable U.S. force that has remained in place since the 1991 war with Iraq.

Along with this buildup, the latest air, land and sea exercise, called Eager Mace, shows how U.S. military planning has changed.

Marines now routinely train in Kuwait, learning to cope with the region's blistering heat, the sometimes disorienting lack of geographic landmarks, and the powdery, blowing sand that can foul engines and bog down infantry troops. If the Marines are ordered to be part of a strike against Iraq, the territory will be familiar.

"We're here to demonstrate our readiness to go wherever we're needed to go," said Capt. Seth Folsom, commander of a motorized infantry unit.

The 1,000 Marines from the warships Mount Vernon and Denver will conduct day and night exercises, including firing live rounds from weaponry ranging from M-16 rifles to howitzers.

At the Marines' desert training facility at Twentynine Palms in California, use of live rounds is restricted for environmental and safety reasons.

Training in Kuwait will emphasize use of night-vision equipment and thermal-imaging technology meant to give Marines a tactical advantage. Training with the Kuwaitis might give Marines tips on how to beat the desert heat.

"They've been in the desert a lot longer than we have," said Cpl. Leif Paul. "I'm sure they have their own ways of desert survival."

The Marines will train close to the Army facility in Kuwait, known as Camp Doha, which now houses several thousand soldiers, heavy equipment for a brigade, a Patriot antimissile system and several dozen aircraft.

The Army plans its own exercise later this year.

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Trained for Speed

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