WASHINGTON -- Thousands of American troops and dozens of warships will head to Persian Gulf in the coming weeks as the Pentagon puts forces in place to make war on Iraq, defense officials say.
Since Christmas, the Pentagon has begun alerting units around the United States and overseas to prepare for deployment. The Navy has been ordered to prepare two aircraft carrier battle groups and two amphibious assault groups - which carry thousands of Marines - to be ready to head to the region sometime in January, officials said Friday.
Air Force combat aircraft wings and Army units also are receiving orders to deploy, officials said. Military personnel will go to Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain, among other locations, reinforcing the 50,000 U.S. military personnel already in the region.
The fresh troops are intended to coerce Iraqi President Saddam Hussein into disclosing and abandoning his efforts to acquire chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, military officials said. No decision to go to war has been made.
"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.
The Bush administration waited until after Christmas to issue the orders. 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 outfits, 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.
The Pentagon's orders require the Navy to have its carrier and amphibious assault groups 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 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 decided on the second carrier, but officials said it will either be the Everett, Wash.-based USS Abraham Lincoln, now 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.
A fourth carrier group, centered on the USS Harry S. Truman, is in the Mediterranean Sea.
In addition, the 1,000-bed Navy hospital ship Comfort is expected to put to sea from Baltimore next week and prepare for action, military officials said. 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.
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.
On the Net:
USS George Washington: http://www.spear.navy.mil/gw/
U.S. Central Command: http://www.centcom.mil/