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U.S. troops won't be ready to fight Iraq until at least mid-March

CAMP DOHA, Kuwait—While the Bush administration keeps warning that time is running out for Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to disarm, the U.S. troops, tanks and supplies needed to make war against Baghdad won't be ready for a possible invasion until mid-March at the earliest.

After weeks of deployment orders, an estimated 60,000 troops are in the Persian Gulf region and another 100,000 are due to follow them.

But the U.S. ground presence in Kuwait now is at less than 20,000 soldiers, a small fraction of those required to invade Iraq.

Privately, U.S. military officers in Kuwait voice skepticism over an assessment from the Pentagon that American forces will be ready for war by late February if President Bush orders military action.

Some retired officers and military experts agree.

"You could conceivably be two months or more away in order to satisfy every ground commander," said retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark, the former NATO commander who oversaw the 1999 allied effort that ousted Serbian forces from Kosovo. "The force isn't there yet."

Though the Pentagon's war plans remain secret, a number of senior officials have indicated that an invasion force to be massed largely in Kuwait probably would consist of three heavy Army divisions, a light division, one Marine Expeditionary Force and a contingent of British troops and armor.

So far, only the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, which has been training in Kuwait since last spring, has significant numbers of troops, tanks and other armored vehicles on the ground. The last of the division's 19,000 soldiers and their equipment should be in place and combat-ready by mid-February.

Two squadrons of cargo ships began unloading tanks, armored vehicles and other equipment and supplies for the 60,000-man 1st Marine Expeditionary Force a little more than 10 days ago. Marine Corps officers describe the arrival of personnel and equipment as "robust and continuous," though they decline to say when they expect their forces to be ready for action.

The Army announced eight days ago that its 4th Infantry Division at Fort Hood, Texas, would spearhead a 37,000-member task force as part of the buildup. But the division is still loading its equipment aboard ships in Corpus Christi, Texas, which could take another week or more. Transport by ship to the Persian Gulf takes about 18 to 21 days, according to GlobalSecurity.org, a Washington-area research group that tracks military and intelligence issues.

Three other Army divisions, the 1st Calvary, also at Fort Hood, the 101st Airborne at Fort Campbell, Ky., and the 1st Armored, based in Germany, haven't received orders to deploy but could as early as this week.

The Navy has drawn up plans to deploy as many as seven of its 12 carrier battle groups. But Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld hasn't yet decided how many carriers will be in the final battle plans, said a senior Defense Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt will head to the eastern Mediterranean within the next week, the official said.

The 4th Infantry Division's helicopters, artillery, Humvees and other vehicles can be transported to the region by C-5 and C-17 cargo jets, but it would take as many as 500 sorties to deploy the entire division, according to military officials familiar with the 4th Infantry's logistics.

Such a massive deployment would further be complicated because about 25 percent of the C-5 fleet, which first took to the skies in 1970, is down at any given time because of repairs and maintenance.

"It really has been a hurry-up-and-wait kind of process, in that a lot of troops have gotten deployment notices in the last couple of weeks, but it's going to take a long time to get their equipment there," said Patrick Garret, a military analyst for GlobalSecurity.org.

It takes roughly 30 to 45 days to deploy a tank-heavy Army division overseas, according to Clark. Once on the ground, troops have to "marry up" with their equipment, move to forward staging areas and get organized. Troops must be trained. Commanders have to draw up battle plans and carry out rehearsals. This all can take weeks even under optimal conditions.

Still, "there's no question of the outcome," said retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who led the 24th Infantry Division in the famous "left hook" that cut off the Iraqi occupation army in Kuwait during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

McCaffrey thinks the preponderance of the ground attack forces could be in the region within 30 days. As they were preparing for battle, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps jets could begin bombing targets in and around Baghdad and other strategic sites. Special operations troops could attack Scud missile sites and suspected chemical and biological facilities. Other efforts could focus on psychological operations to convince Iraqi soldiers to surrender.

But McCaffrey admits that generals, by their very nature, are cautious: "If left to the generals, we would still be there another year" before attacking.

"If I was commanding a division that was going in, I would be fighting to get the entire team on the ground and let them acclimatize for a month before commencing operations," he said.

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

Iraq

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