| An F-16 Fighting Falcon on patrol in northern Iraq. (Reuters)
London, Sept. 17 (Reuters): The US navy is seeking to ship military vehicles and hundreds of containers full of ammunition from Europe to the Gulf amid talk that Washington is preparing for a strike on Baghdad, shipping sources said today.
The navy’s request for a large roll-on roll-off vessel is the fourth major US arms delivery using commercial shipping to the Gulf since early August, which industry experts interpret as a sign it is building firepower ahead of a possible attack.
The latest request by the Military Sealift Command (MSC), the US navy’s agency responsible for moving equipment by sea, was the largest so far. It was capable of carrying over 3,000 tonnes of materiel.
The request was made before Iraq’s offer to readmit weapons inspectors last night, which was dismissed by Washington as a “tactic that will fail”.
The tender document, seen by Reuters, specifies that the ship will load at three separate ports in northern and southwestern Europe for discharge in three unspecified Gulf ports in late September or early October.
The manifest specifies the ship should carry “rolling stock, breakbulk and containers”. It also stipulates the “securing and stowing of ammunition containers”. The Pentagon has said previous shipments were for planned military exercises with Kuwait, but military analysts have said the shipments, some from the United States, are consistent with a military build-up.
“If this is supposed to be for yet another exercise then they are going to a lot of trouble and spending a lot of tax payers’ money to do it,” a shipping source said.
Over the past month, the Pentagon has chartered four large privately owned ships to carry US army Abrams battle tanks, armoured personnel carriers and helicopters to undisclosed destinations in the Gulf and the Red Sea.
The recent commercial shipments are dwarfed by the US navy’s own shipping capability, which was significantly enhanced after the 1991 Gulf War.
The Navy can now call on about 20 massive new roll-on roll-off vessels, up to five times larger than the latest commercial vessel.
MSC’s website said the largest classes of ship, known as the Watson-class and Bob Hope-class, can each carry up to an entire US army task force including 58 Abrams tanks, 48 other track vehicles and more than 900 trucks.
The Watson-class ships, with a capacity of 380,000 square feet or eight football pitches, are now deployed in the Indian Ocean.