WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon has ordered a major military force to the Persian Gulf in preparation for a possible war with Iraq.
Thousands of troops, two aircraft carrier battle groups and scores of combat aircraft have received orders since Christmas to ready themselves to head to the region in January and February, defense officials said Friday. Military personnel will go to Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain, among other locations.
The Bush administration waited until after the holiday to issue the orders, which alert units across the United States and possibly overseas to prepare for deployment to the Persian Gulf, officials said. Officials said tens of thousands of military personnel will receive orders to go to the region, but a precise figure was unavailable.
Some of the units being sent to the region are combat-ready, including infantry units, warships and strike aircraft, officials said. Many more are logistics, engineering and support teams, which will prepare for the arrival of even larger combat units in the months ahead, officials said. They will add to the 50,000 U.S. military personnel already in the region.
Heading to region
"We don't comment on specific unit deployments. However, forces will be flowing to the region to be in place should the president decide to use them," said Jim Wilkinson, a spokesman at U.S. Central Command, which would oversee operations in Iraq.
Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last week such deployments will "reinforce diplomacy." The Bush administration hopes the threat of military action will increase the pressure on Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to fully disclose his efforts to acquire chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.
The Pentagon ordered the Navy to select and prepare two aircraft carrier battle groups and two amphibious assault groups to go to the region, defense officials said. The orders, sent in the last two days, require the Navy to have the vessels ready to sail to the seas around Iraq within 96 hours after a certain date in January, the officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. They did not specify that date.
The Navy has determined that one of the carriers will be the USS George Washington. The ship just arrived home to Norfolk, Va., from the Persian Gulf region and has remained ready to return. The Navy has not yet decided on the second carrier, but officials said it will either be the Everett, Wash.-based USS Abraham Lincoln, which is currently in port at Perth, Australia, having just left the Persian Gulf region, or the USS Kitty Hawk, currently in port in Japan.
An aircraft carrier battle group includes six to eight surface escorts, including cruisers, destroyers, frigates and other vessels, dozens of strike and support aircraft and about 7,500 sailors. An amphibious ready group has about 2,200 Marines.
The defense officials said the amphibious assault groups have not yet been selected. Those groups center on a large, carrier-like vessel that can launch helicopters and carry Marines.
Already in the region is the carrier USS Constellation and the amphibious assault ship USS Nassau, and their escorts, officials said. The Nassau group carries another 2,200 Marines.
An additional carrier group, centered on the USS Harry S. Truman, is in the Mediterranean Sea.
In addition, the U.S. Navy hospital ship Comfort is expected to put to sea from its home port in Baltimore next week and prepare for action, military officials said Friday. It will be headed to Diego Garcia, a British island in the Indian Ocean where the United States bases numerous military aircraft, to support any potential conflict with Iraq.
The 1,000-bed floating hospital will initially sail with a crew of 61 civilian mariners and 225 Navy personnel, including enough doctors to support two operating rooms, said Marge Holtz, spokeswoman for the Navy's Military Sealift Command. Hundreds more will be flown to the ship as needed, she said.
Air Force officials said units from five U.S.-based combat wings have received orders to prepare to deploy. They include F-15 fighters from Langley Air Force Base, Va.; F-15E Strike Eagles from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C.; B-1B bombers from Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D.; rescue helicopters and Predator drones from Nellis Air Force Base, Nev.; and C-130 cargo planes and possibly more rescue helicopters from Moody Air Force Base, Ga.
Air tankers and transport aircraft are also expected to take part, officials said. Dozens of fighters already based in the Persian Gulf fly daily patrols over most of Iraq.
The size of the Army deployment was not clear, but it included infantry as well as support units, officials said. The Army also keeps air defense units in the region.
Last week, officials said the Army was expected to deploy troops from the 1st Armored Division and 1st Infantry Division, both based in Germany, as well as an air mobile unit.
The main Marine Corps contingent is likely to be the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, based at Camp Pendleton, Calif. The 1st MEF's headquarters unit already has moved to Kuwait to prepare for combat operations.
A Coast Guard unit, based in Tacoma, Wash., that operates six small patrol boats has been deployed to the Persian Gulf, according to the office of Sen. Patty Murray.
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