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U.S., British troops practice for possible invasion of Iraq

CAMP AS SAYLIYAH, Qatar—Inside climate-controlled warehouses in the Qatari desert, ringed by guards and fences and shielded from eavesdroppers by a blanket of nonstop Christmas music, U.S. and British troops are practicing for a possible invasion of Iraq.

Armed only with computers, about 600 U.S. Central Command staff officers and British allies are engaged in an exercise that is testing their battle-management skills while working bugs out of the most sophisticated forward military-command center ever fielded.

It would be from this $58 million, dun-colored complex that Army Gen. Tommy Franks, the head of Central Command, would direct a war against Iraq if President Bush decides to go ahead with one.

The exercise at Camp as Sayliyah, about 10 miles southwest of Qatar's capital, Doha, began Monday. It marks the first time the new Command Deployable Headquarters has deployed outside the United States.

The headquarters can be packed up quickly and shipped to any of the 25 countries in the Middle East, Asia and Africa that fall under Central Command's responsibility. But with a possible war with Iraq looming, it is expected to stay in Qatar after the war game ends next Tuesday, part of a steady buildup of American military force around the Persian Gulf.

The exercise, called "Internal Look," involves a simulated conflict with Iraq.

On one side are Franks and his staff in Qatar and naval, ground and air force commanders in Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Europe and the United States. An enemy "Red Team," whose mission is to find and challenge these allies' weaknesses, also is based at Camp as Sayliyah. The simulated conflict is managed by computers in Suffolk, Va.

On Thursday, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld wrapped up a trip to the Horn of Africa and Qatar by joining Franks in a tour of the facility and briefings on the exercise.

The visit was covered by scores of journalists, and U.S. officers took the unusual step of allowing some of them, including American television crews and several Qatari reporters, into the supersecret Command Deployable Headquarters for the first time.

The tour was intended to showcase the facility's capabilities and provide evidence of the American military's post-Cold War transformation into a force capable of battling terrorism and other threats of the 21st century.

The Bush administration, which usually practices strict secrecy, may have intended the tour to remind Saddam Hussein of the military force he faces.

The Command Deployable Headquarters is made up of 20 huge steel shipping containers and large tents in which officers work batteries of computers and telephones.

Franks and his staff have overseen the 14-month-old U.S. intervention in Afghanistan from their permanent headquarters in Tampa, Fla. The Command Deployable Headquarters makes it possible for them to move to the field to direct operations.

"It is a new way to fight a war," said Franks' spokesman Jim Wilkinson.

Using computers, satellites and other advanced communications systems, Franks can confer with commanders in his region, the Pentagon and the White House by video and audio links. He and his staff can talk directly to troops in the field and watch real-time pictures of targets, battlefields and damage.

The nerve center of Franks' operations is the Secure Information Facility, a huge shipping container.

Inside the vaultlike space Thursday, some 40 officers sat elbow-to-elbow at three rows of desks working at computers or talking on telephones. Several flat video screens hung on the front wall, carrying only maps of the Central Command region while journalists were present.

Only the quiet hum of computers and air conditioners could be heard, although Col. Tom Bright, Franks' chief of operations, said there are times when "this place really gets to hoppin'."

A chain-link fence and guard booths protect the perimeter. To prevent eavesdropping, Christmas carols play endlessly from loudspeakers. That's how Nat King Cole came to be crooning "Silent Night" in Qatar on Thursday.


(c) 2002, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.