WASHINGTON -- Setting the stage for possible war, the United States and Britain have nearly tripled the number of air patrols in the "no-fly" zone over southern Iraq, a senior defense official said.
The purpose: to keep Iraqi defenders off guard and mask the start of actual combat.
The increased air missions are an unmistakable sign that, while President Bush has not yet announced an intention to go to war, the Pentagon is close to having set the stage for an invasion.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Wednesday that Bush has discussed with congressional leaders a timetable for deciding on war, but he said the president was not specific.
"The one timetable that the president identified that remains operative is when on Jan. 30 he said weeks, not months," Fleischer said.
In another sign that the start of war may be near, Central Command announced Thursday that U.S. planes dropped hundreds of thousands of leaflets overnight over southern Iraq. Among the messages: Do not use weapons of mass destruction; do not mine waterways and do not release oil into the Gulf. Those are among the desperation moves that the Pentagon fears Iraq may be planning.
Also on Thursday, coalition aircraft bombed a mobile surface-to-air missile system and an anti-aircraft artillery site in western Iraq, approximately 240 miles west of Baghdad.
The strike came after Iraqi forces moved the weapons below the 33rd Parallel into the southern no-fly zone, where they were a threat to coalition aircraft, Central Command said in a statement.
On Capitol Hill, the civilian leaders of the military services gave the Senate Armed Services Committee their first public estimates of the cost of stabilizing Iraq after any war. Army Secretary Thomas White said it would take $20 billion to $30 billion for the Army, including the cost of ongoing deployments to the Gulf but excluding combat costs, which he said are incalculable. The Navy said its costs likely would be similar, and the Air Force estimated its at $7 billion.
In accordance with U.S. military doctrine, Gen. Tommy Franks, the commander of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf, is now establishing an irregular pattern of flights over invasion routes in the south, making it more difficult for Iraqi air defenders to foresee a shift from air patrols to actual combat.
Several hundred sorties a day are now being flown over southern Iraq, including F-16 and other attack planes as well as surveillance, refueling and other support aircraft, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. The official did not reveal specific numbers.
The increase is meant to preserve an element of surprise for the start of a war, which is expected to unleash a barrage of bombs 10 times as great as in the opening days of the 1991 Gulf War.
Franks and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld both said at a Pentagon news conference Wednesday that Bush has not yet decided to go to war.
Rumsfeld, Franks and other senior military and senior national security officials met with the president at the White House to go over final planning for an Iraq war. Other officials said the intent, if Bush decides war is necessary, is to launch an air assault to "shock and awe" Iraqi defenders.
Many of the bombs would be guided by lasers or satellite signals, adding to accuracy, one official said.
Franks said the U.S. forces now arrayed against Iraq, said to number at least 230,000 with many more on the way, are prepared for a go-ahead from Bush.
"Our troops in the field are trained, they're ready, they are capable," Franks said.
The man who would command Army troops in war said Thursday there's apprehension among the uniformed men and women already positioned in the Persian Gulf region.
"There's nobody in the military who wouldn't have butterflies," said Lt. Gen. David McKiernan, interviewed on ABC's "Good Morning America" from Kuwait.
Asked how hard it is to keep troops prepared as they await a final decision from Washington, he said, "I think that's a challenge over time. But what makes that challenge doable is leadership, with the right junior leaders and the right senior leaders, to make sure that formations and individuals stay ready, stay proficient, stay trained. They will maintain that edge as long as it takes."
Franks said he could not estimate how many Americans might die in an Iraq war, but he expressed "incredible confidence" in their ability to fight and win.
Franks also declined to offer an estimate of how long a war might last, even in general terms. Many military officials have said they expect it to be shorter than the 1991 war, which began with a five-week bombing campaign followed by a decisive 100-hour ground war to liberate Kuwait.
In the 1991 war, 148 U.S. troops were killed.
Franks said that in the lead-up to that conflict, there were predictions of many U.S. casualties and few people anticipated the ground phase of the war would be so short.
"Since we can't know what the duration will be, we can't predict, using some formulation, some mathematical model, what casualties might look like," he said. "And so I won't predict numbers of casualties."
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