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Commanders recheck plans as soldiers prepare for battle

Wednesday, March 19, 2003

WASHINGTON -- U.S. commanders rechecked their war plans, aircraft carriers loaded up on bombs and infantry soldiers waited for final orders Tuesday as the Pentagon pushed its battle preparations into high gear.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld met at the White House with President Bush, who had given Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein until 7 p.m. today to leave or face an invasion.

Near the war zone, commander Tommy Franks hunkered down with other top military officers at the forward command center in Qatar, about 700 miles from Baghdad.

About 300,000 troops -- most of them from the United States, about 40,000 from Britain -- waited within striking distance of Iraq. With them were hundreds of M1A2 Abrams tanks and M2/M3 Bradley armored fighting vehicles, scores of attack helicopters like the AH-64 Apache and more than 1,000 airplanes ranging from the pilotless Predator drone to the carrier-launched F/A-18 Super Hornet.

Army Gen. Franks and the generals that report to him worked Tuesday to make sure their forces were as prepared as possible, U.S. Central Command spokesman Jim Wilkinson said.

"He wants to make sure that the commanders have thought about every possible contingency that you can," Wilkinson said of Franks.

"But he also is realistic enough, and has been around enough, to know that every military plan changes once the first bullet's fired. And so it's his job to try to anticipate as many contingencies as possible and that's what he's doing."

No last-minute surge

Equipment, supplies and troops continued to arrive in Kuwait, where most of the U.S. and British ground troops preparing to invade Iraq were awaiting their final orders. Military officials said there was no last-minute surge in activity at Kuwait's ports and airfields because front-line units were already prepared for battle.

In the Kuwaiti desert near the border with Iraq, U.S. troops packed up their gear and loaded it onto cargo trucks and armored vehicles. Soldiers said they were a bit apprehensive but ready to move into Iraq.

"I'm kind of excited, wanting to see if we go north. The faster we do, the faster we go home," said Spc. Servando Diaz of San Jose, Calif.

The aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk met with an ammunition ship, the USNS Flint, to load more 1,000-pound Joint Direct Attack Munition bombs and Phoenix air-to-air missiles. Crews waited to load the weapons onto the carrier's F/A-18 and F-14 warplanes.

"We might be able to use them quickly," said Capt. Thomas A. Parker, the carrier's commander. "We've got some room down below, so we're going to fill her up with as much as we can hold."

Meanwhile, ships carrying gear for the Army's 4th Infantry Division remained off the coast of Turkey, where they have been waiting for weeks. The 4th Infantry's troops were still at their home base of Fort Hood, Texas, awaiting further orders.

Turkey's government has not approved U.S. requests to allow the American troops to use Turkish bases to stage a northern invasion of Iraq. The United States also is seeking the right to have planes and missiles fly over Turkey on the way to targets in Iraq.

Turkish leaders said they were ready to press ahead with a parliamentary vote. But U.S. officials have said an American offer of billions of dollars in aid was pulled from the table because Turkey took too long to decide.

Rumsfeld met at the Pentagon Tuesday with Turkish Defense Minister Vecdi Gonul.

Pentagon officials have said they were in no hurry to reroute the 4th Infantry and its equipment into Kuwait because that might create a logjam with the forces and gear already moving in.

U.S. officials also continued planning for governing Iraq after Saddam. The man who would be Iraq's civil administrator after the U.S. takes control, retired Army Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, was in Kuwait as those preparations continued. ------

Associated Press writers Chris Tomlinson in Kuwait and Rohan Sullivan aboard the USS Kitty Hawk contributed to this report.


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