AP Military WriterWASHINGTON (AP) -- Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld will travel to the Middle East for talks with political and military leaders in the region, spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said Tuesday.
Rumsfeld is making the trip at the request of President Bush, Clarke said. Which countries Rumsfeld will visit and which officials he will meet are still being arranged, Clarke said.
"This is to continue the consultations that have already started," she said.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Rumsfeld's mission will be information sharing and consultation with friends. Asked why Bush chose to send Rumsfeld to the region, Fleischer replied, "Because he's the appropriate person to go."
Many of the U.S. forces in the region are based in Saudi Arabia, and others are in smaller Persian Gulf countries such as Bahrain and Kuwait. Saudi officials reportedly have expressed reservations about the use of bases on their soil to launch retaliatory strikes against Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida terrorist network.
Support for the anti-terrorism campaign in Muslim countries is considered important to counter claims by bin Laden supporters that the United States is waging war against Islam.
"We want to make sure we have the consultations at the highest level," Clarke said. "It's a very strong sign of the importance we place on the region and on the coalitions."
Rumsfeld's trip comes as the U.S. continues to beef up its military presence in the region. Clarke said that about 30,000 American military members are in the region, including two aircraft carrier battle groups and 350 planes.
In addition to the naval forces in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea, the Pentagon has dispatched more than 100 additional Air Force planes to the region since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. They are based in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and other Gulf nations.
Two other aircraft carriers are at sea and under way to the region.
The USS Kitty Hawk, which departed its homeport in Japan on Monday, will be available in or near the Arabian Sea as a floating base for other forces, defense officials said.
An aircraft carrier normally has about 75 Navy planes on board for a variety of missions, including fighters for land attack.
In keeping with the administration's policy of not discussing details of military activities related to the anti-terror campaign, the Navy would not comment Monday except to say the Kitty Hawk does not have its usual number of aircraft aboard.
Two defense officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Kitty Hawk was headed toward the Arabian Sea to be available for use by U.S. special operations forces or by Navy aircraft other than its own.
Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Gordon, a spokesman at Pacific Fleet headquarters in Hawaii, said the Kitty Hawk left a portion of its air wing behind at Atsugi Air Base in Japan when it departed. He said he could not provide more details.
One defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Kitty Hawk left Yokosuka Naval Base outside of Tokyo with a "representative mix" of strike and support planes on board, including combat aircraft like the F-18 Hornet and F-14 Tomcat. He would not say how many planes were on board but made clear it was much fewer than normal.
A carrier has fighter aircraft aboard not only for offensive strikes but also to help defend itself.
Other than Afghanistan, U.S. officials have refused to discuss which nations might be military targets. Secretary of State Colin Powell said the first phase of retaliation will be aimed at Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida network. In an interview on "CBS Evening News," Powell would not rule out a strike against Iraq.
Bush "has ruled nothing out with respect to second, third or fourth phases of our campaign militarily," Powell told CBS. "What we really have to do is shut down terrorism, not just find a single place to take revenge out on, or a group of people to take revenge out on."