WASHINGTON — One of Iraq's Republican Guard divisions has started to pull out of the northern part of the country and is moving south, Pentagon officials said Thursday, signaling that President Saddam Hussein may be taking up defensive positions for a possible U.S. invasion.
The movements were detected by U.S. satellites in recent days, officials said, and come as the American military disclosed new U.S. deployments to the Persian Gulf that appear to represent final preparations for an attack.
An Air Force official said that an undisclosed number of B-2 bombers -- stealth aircraft that carry massive firepower -- have been deployed from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri.
Separately, the Navy said that more than 800 crew members were sent to the gulf to take their positions aboard the Comfort, one of the Navy's largest hospital ships. The vessel, which embarked for the gulf Jan. 6, has 1,000 hospital beds and is likely to serve as a primary medical facility in the event of significant American casualties.
The Navy also announced Thursday that the aircraft carrier Nimitz and its battle group would leave San Diego for the gulf Monday.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said the movements underscore U.S. resolve and are in support of diplomatic efforts that are running out of time.
"There is still hope one of several things could occur that would lead to cooperation on the part of [Iraq]," Rumsfeld said. "Until that happens, forces will flow."
Rumsfeld declined to comment on the Iraqi troop movements, except to say that the Pentagon views such shifts with interest. Officials said the movements involved a mechanized Republican Guard division, a unit that typically has about 10,000 soldiers and a few hundred tanks.
Officials said photos showed a convoy of as many as 100 trucks heading south out of positions near the northern town of Mosul. The column appeared headed toward Baghdad or the town of Tikrit, which is Hussein's boyhood home and in a region considered particularly loyal to him.
The division was not among the elite Republican Guard units stationed close to Baghdad and thought most likely to remain loyal to Hussein. The movements leave Iraq with just a single division in the northern part of the country, near the city of Kirkuk.
The U.S. war plan is believed to include a major invasion into the north launched from Turkey.
A U.S. defense intelligence official said Hussein's movements were not a surprise. "It's been speculated he is going to reposition his forces around Baghdad," in an attempt to draw the United States into bloody urban warfare, the official said.
Such troop movements would prompt minor adjustments to U.S. strategy, and reveal little about Hussein's, the official said. But when a division is in transit, the official said, U.S. intelligence can learn whether its equipment is operational.
Some military analysts said Hussein may also have ordered the movements in an attempt to provoke a U.S. military response.
"I think Iraq may be attempting to start the ground war ahead of America's planned schedule," said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, "engaging in troop movements that might provoke the United States into converting parts of the 'no-fly' zones into 'no-drive' zones."
Pentagon officials would not say how many B-2 bombers had been deployed, or where they were headed. But experts said they were probably sent to bases in Britain and on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia.
The Air Force has installed as many as five B-2 hangers on Diego Garcia. The hangers are key facilities because they enable air crews to maintain the B-2s' radar-evading skin.
"This will be the first-ever forward deployment [of B-2s] for combat operations," said Lt. Matt Hasson, a spokesman at Whiteman.
In previous conflicts, including Afghanistan, the B-2s were flown from Whiteman, a vast distance from base to battlefield that restricted the number of sorties they could complete. Operating from Diego Garcia, B-2s could probably fly two missions a day.