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US Taking Steps to Ready Forces for Iraq Fighting

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U.S. Taking Steps to Ready Forces for Iraq Fighting


WASHINGTON, Sept. 22 — Mobilizing for a possible attack on Iraq, American commanders have taken many steps to prepare and deploy their forces, Defense Department and military officials say. But the early steps have been calculated not to interfere with the Bush administration's campaign to build diplomatic and political support for taking action.

In interviews, these senior officials have described several important steps that the United States has taken to prepare for battle without going on a full war footing.

In one of the most significant steps, elite Special Operations troops have been told to separate from the military temporarily and to join C.I.A. units that could be used in any campaign. Those troops would bring their counterterrorism skills to covert missions while allowing the Pentagon to maintain that no uniformed combat forces were in action.

The Navy has accelerated training and maintenance schedules for many ships, including three aircraft carrier battle groups based on the West Coast, so that they could be ordered to steam toward the Persian Gulf on short notice.

Several thousand marines and Army ground forces, being deployed with heavy armor, are flowing into Kuwait as part of regularly scheduled exercises or troop replacements. But senior officials acknowledge that the fresh units or others timed to rotate out could be ordered to remain along the front with Iraq.

"The question is not what moves into the region," one officer said. "It's what stays."

The Pentagon last week resumed inoculating certain troops for anthrax, Gen. Richard B. Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has told Congress.

To some extent, the latest disclosures serve the military's purposes by indicating the readiness and resolve of American forces.

Some of the steps are described as prudent planning for a mission that has not yet been ordered by President Bush, who has received detailed options for consideration only recently. Some of the deployments are explained as contributing to the global campaign against terrorism, even though the forces involved are consciously placed where they would be available for quick use against Iraq.

Administration officials repeatedly state that Mr. Bush has made no decision about a war with Iraq, and senior military officials say they have received no orders for units to get ready to go to the Persian Gulf region on a mission to dislodge President Saddam Hussein from power.

Still, deployments under way enhance the already sizable force that has lingered in the region since the war with Iraq in 1991, including more than 20,000 American military personnel permanently based within close striking distance, the heavy equipment for at least four armored brigades, and Patriot antimissile batteries to protect them.

Preparations involving the Special Operations units reflect their decisive role during the war in Afghanistan, where they worked closely with intelligence agencies.

Senior officials who discussed their role in general terms said it was a standard procedure to prepare the units for contingencies, citing their particular combat skills. But the officials did not disclose details.

A senior Defense Department official said "some small handfuls" of Special Operations forces offered the kinds of abilities that would be useful to the Central Intelligence Agency.

Their missions would fall into broad categories like what the military calls "preparing the battlefield." As described in unclassified texts on military doctrine, that could include solidifying ties with opposition forces, scouting for arsenals of biological and chemical weapons and the artillery or missiles that would launch them and mounting sabotage raids against prized targets.

Senior military officials said no American military forces were operating in southern or western Iraq, although they would not say whether the C.I.A. was already undertaking missions there.

One senior official said a number of Americans from several federal agencies had flown in and out of the Kurdish-controlled areas of northern Iraq to coordinate with opposition groups there.

Navy officials said speeding up maintenance and training schedules for its West Coast-based carriers was a prudent precaution in case the Pentagon needed to move strike aircraft quickly to the Persian Gulf, where it could not be assured of operating from bases on land.

"We would like to move them up as much as possible," one senior officer said of readiness schedules for the three carriers, the Constellation, the Carl Vinson and the Nimitz.

Those carriers represent a quarter of the Navy's main strike force. Of the three ships, the Constellation, based in San Diego, would be ready to be deployed first. Others, having returned to home port more recently, would take months more to refit.

It takes several weeks for carriers on the West Coast to reach the Persian Gulf. Carriers based on the East Coast need less time to reach the eastern Mediterranean.

In addition to surveillance and strike aircraft, carrier battle groups include ships and submarines with long-range Tomahawk cruise missiles that can attack far-off targets.

The carrier that just arrived in the gulf region for a six-month tour, the Abraham Lincoln, would have a distinct advantage in any war against Iraq. The Lincoln is the first carrier to carry a 12-plane squadron of the Navy's new F/A-18E Super Hornets in its air wing. The Super Hornet is able to stay aloft longer without refueling and to carry more bombs than older versions of the plane.

Marine and Army units on regularly scheduled deployments to the gulf region could also be sent to Iraq if Mr. Bush ordered an attack.

A 4,000-soldier brigade of the Army's Third Infantry Division, based at Fort Stewart, Ga., is being deployed to Kuwait in phases this fall. The unit, which has M-1A1 tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles, is scheduled to replace a brigade from Fort Benning, Ga., by December.

"At this time there's no change in the schedule," said Maj. Mike Birmingham, a spokesman for the Third Infantry Division. "But we understand if things change, the brigade in Kuwait now could remain in place."

Similarly, about 2,200 marines from the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which recently completed an exercise in Jordan, are about to begin a monthlong amphibious assault exercise in Kuwait. That unit, too, could stay longer if necessary.

On the Horn of Africa, hundreds of Special Operations forces were sent to a French base in Djibouti to prepare for missions to capture or kill terrorist fighters seeking refuge in Yemen, Sudan, Somalia or elsewhere in the region, Pentagon officials said.

While the forces' role in a possible attack on Iraq would be "tertiary" to the deployment, one military official said, they add a potent and stealthy strike force to the region.

The Air Force, too, is taking steps to prepare for a war, bolstering the more than 200 warplanes — attack jets and support aircraft — already based in the region to enforce the no-flight zones over southern and northern Iraq. The Pentagon disclosed recently that it had asked Britain for permission to base B-2 stealth bombers at an air base on Diego Garcia, an island in the Indian Ocean.

In another sign of war preparations, the Central Command has said it is sending 600 military planners from its base in Tampa, Fla., to the Persian Gulf state of Qatar to test the command's ability to set up a headquarters in a crisis. But top Pentagon officials say the planners will probably form the vanguard of a new forward headquarters in the region, based at Al Udeid Air Base, outside Doha, the capital of Qatar.

Al Udeid, a sprawling base built on a desolate stretch of chalk-colored desert, has the longest runway in the Middle East, able to handle any American military aircraft. New hangars dot the base, each resembling a sand dune; the shape is designed to be hard to see and to deflect the radar of an enemy missile.

The military also can draw on a large force of troops and a large arsenal of equipment kept in the region after the 1991 war.

Warehouses in each of those countries hold about 115 M-1A1 Abrams tanks, 60 M-2A2 Bradley fighting vehicles, 100 armored personnel carriers, 25 mortars and 20 155-millimeter howitzers, said officials for Army forces assigned to the Central Command.

Ammunition is stored in both countries, with field artillery rounds in Kuwait. The Kuwait warehouses also hold 30 days' worth of food and fuel.

All of the equipment for another armored brigade from the Army and one from the Marine Corps — another 9,000 troops — is afloat on ships in the area, officials said.

Two Patriot antimissile batteries are in Kuwait and two more in Saudi Arabia. Military experts say the Pentagon may soon send Patriot batteries to Turkey and Qatar in advance of an offensive.

The permanent troop strength near Iraq includes about 9,000 Americans in Kuwait; more than 6,000 in Saudi Arabia; about 4,200 in Bahrain, home to the Fifth Fleet; and just over 3,300 in Qatar. Several thousand more Americans are stationed in Saudi Arabia, including a technologically advanced air operations center at Prince Sultan Air Base outside Riyadh.

Saudi Arabia initially indicated that it would not allow the United States to use its bases for a war against Iraq. But a senior Saudi minister suggested recently that his country would let the United States use its military bases in a United Nations-backed attack on Iraq.

Even before large numbers of combat troops flow into a combat zone, military logisticians will have made arrangements to feed, fuel and supply them. Whatever cannot be bought in countries where American forces are based, the military will have to supply on its own.

"Before the forces come in, you need to take care of water, fuel and utilities," said Gus Pagonis, a retired three-star Army general who directed logistics in the Persian Gulf war of 1991. "You want to go into the host country and find out how many trucks are available, where can I buy fuel, baked goods and vegetables."

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