WASHINGTON—The United States is planning to accelerate the flow of U.S. forces into the Persian Gulf region to prepare for a possible invasion of Iraq, according to senior U.S. officials.
Up to 100,000 American troops, along with additional naval and air forces, could begin moving immediately after the holidays and be in place by the end of January or early February, according to a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity and cautioned that plans were always subject to change. The U.S. forces could be joined by some 20,000 British troops and forces from other countries willing to fight Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
Word of the planning for a surge of American military power into the Persian Gulf came as the United States and Britain rejected what Iraq says is a full and final accounting of its past efforts to produce nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. American and British officials said the Iraqi report contained little new information and left many questions unanswered.
U.N. weapons inspectors must give their initial assessment of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs Jan. 27. Putting more troops and material into the region between now and then would increase the pressure on Saddam to give up his weapons. The acceleration of what has been a gradual buildup of troops and equipment also could put into place all the elements of an invasion force.
One risk in that strategy is that Saddam could become convinced that his days are numbered and launch pre-emptive strikes on American troops in Kuwait or on Israel with chemical or biological weapons. Israel has said it would retaliate, and that could widen the conflict into a Middle East war.
The plans for accelerating the U.S. buildup are under review by Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Army Gen. Tommy Franks, the commander of American forces in the Middle East, said a senior defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"They are looking at what might have to happen," said the official. "Obviously, we want to support the diplomatic process. To a certain extent, you can do that with (greater military) presence."
Washington and London have been gradually adding to the land, air and naval forces that have been deployed in the oil-rich Persian Gulf since the 1991 war with Iraq.
A fast U.S. Navy cargo ship that can be loaded and unloaded quickly, the USS Pililaau, began loading vehicles and weapons Thursday at Beaumont, Texas, said another defense official. The Pililaau can carry the equivalent of 3,000 Ford Explorers.
The official declined to identify the units whose equipment is being loaded. However, Texas is the home of the 1st Calvary Division, the Army's premier heavy division, and the 4th Infantry Division, a mechanized unit that is noted for experimenting with high-tech weapons.
A second fast-loading ship, the USS Yano, is scheduled to load equipment at Charleston, S.C., this weekend, the defense official said. The equipment is believed to belong to the Georgia-based 3rd Infantry Division, one of whose three brigades is deployed in Kuwait.
The official said it would take 30 days for the ships to reach the Persian Gulf.
The official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, was confirming information that was observable. Discussing the buildup also meshes with the Bush administration's strategy of putting pressure on Saddam.
Since Oct. 1, 23 U.S. Navy and chartered civilian cargo ships, including two Saudi-owned vessels, have moved trucks, portable bridges, helicopters, ammunition, Army landing craft and other military cargo to the region. The shipments have come from the United States and from bases in Europe and Asia.
An estimated 50,000 American personnel now in the Middle East include some 20,000 ground troops, most of them in Kuwait. They include most of the command structure for an invasion of Iraq: the headquarters staffs of the Europe-based U.S. Army 5th Corps and the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force from Camp Pendleton, Calif., and Franks' 600-strong Tampa, Fla.-based Central Command staff.
The Pentagon has dispatched enough equipment to outfit almost one Marine division and nearly two Army divisions. But the invasion plans are believed to call for one Marine and four Army divisions, meaning that many more troops, vehicles and weapons will have to be sent. Getting them there in time will be an immense undertaking.
"We're not ready to go to war," said Colin Robinson, a research analyst at the Center for Defense Information, an independent research organization, who has closely tracked the buildup. "The ground force is not in place."
Military officials and experts said it would take five weeks to get the troops, vehicles and artillery of an Army heavy division—which numbers about 17,000 soldiers—into a starting position for an invasion.
The troops could be flown out, but the heavy equipment must go by chartered civilian vessels or one of the Pentagon's 19 fast cargo ships.
"If you wanted to just move the troops by air, they would arrive, fall in on their equipment, check their equipment out and train on it a bit," said Andrew Krepinevich, a former Pentagon planner who heads the Center for Budgetary and Strategic Assessments, an independent policy-research group. "I think even a month is kind of an ambitious timeline."
Furthermore, large numbers of support units, such as air defense, intelligence, reconnaissance and logistics, still must be deployed, said experts.
Both the Navy's hospital ships, the USS Comfort and the USS Mercy, were used in the 1991 Gulf War. The Comfort is still moored in Baltimore, and the Mercy is in San Diego, a defense official said. "If we activate them, that would be a big signal," the official said.
An invasion would be preceded by an intense air campaign against Iraq's air defenses, command and control centers and leadership, but not all the aircraft that would participate in such an operation, such as B-2 stealth bombers, are currently in the region.
Only one aircraft carrier, the USS Constellation, and its escorts are on patrol in the Persian Gulf. The USS Harry S. Truman and its battle group are en route to the eastern Mediterranean. At least two other carrier battle groups must be sent before an air war could start, said a second senior defense official, who like the others spoke on condition of anonymity.
(Knight Ridder correspondent Joe Galloway contributed to this report.)
(c) 2002, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.