Washington, Dec. 28: In a major mobilisation for possible war with Iraq, the Pentagon this week ordered about 25,000 air, sea and land forces to the Persian Gulf and instructed the navy to prepare two aircraft carriers for rapid deployment to the region, US defense department officials said.
The deployments were described by officials as the largest to date as the US continues assembling the pieces for an invasion of Iraq that many observers believe could come in February.
The movements are expected to unfold over several weeks, starting within days of the arrival of the New Year. They involve air force fighter and bomber wings, army infantry units, air mobile units and a navy hospital ship. Units are to be drawn from bases across the nation.
“The potential conflict in Iraq is about to become very real to Americans all across the country,” said a senior military official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
President Bush approved the plan last week in a White House session with defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and General Tommy Franks, who would lead US forces in any invasion of Iraq. But the orders weren’t sent out until after Christmas.
When the movements are completed, the US will have positioned about half of the 50,000 troops officials had indicated they would be moving to the region. They will join an estimated 57,000 troops already in position.
Officials indicated that the second half of the deployment will come soon, although they refused to say when. “We’re going to continue our steady buildup,” another military official said.
He and others at the Pentagon confirmed there are dual objectives. One is to ratchet up pressure on Iraq to comply with UN resolutions to disarm. The other is to have enough military firepower in the region to respond quickly — within weeks, if not days — if invasion orders come from the White House.
“We’re going to help the diplomatic process as much as possible,” one official said. Another said: “This is sabre-rattling. Iraq is going to have the sabre at their door pretty soon.”
In Crawford, Texas, where Bush is spending 10 days at his ranch, deputy White House press secretary Scott McClellan refused to comment, saying, “We don’t discuss military matters, including deployments.”
The Pentagon has been moving forces and equipment into the Gulf region since early this year, and has a force of about 57,000 in place.
Until now, the movement has been primarily of equipment and material, not of large numbers of troops. Officials said the new deployments mark the start of a more visible phase of the military buildup. “We have reached that time where the next big thing we’re doing is high optics (or highly visible),” a senior US official said. “If the President is going to decide to go to war early next year, a lot of very visible, real world things have to happen.”
Starting Thursday, enough warplanes and fighter pilots to launch a comprehensive air campaign will begin moving to air bases in Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and other nations surrounding Iraq, officials said.
First to go will be the 1st Fighter Wing and its fleet of 54 F-15C fighter jets, based at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia; the 4th Fighter Wing and its 92 F-15E Strike Eagles from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina; the 28th Bomb Wing, flying B-1B Lancers out of Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota, said Major Roger Lawson, a spokesman for Air Combat Command, which oversees all US combat air force units.