WASHINGTON – Soon after President Bush travels to the U.N. to lay out the case for ousting Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, elements of U.S. Central Command headquarters will begin moving from Tampa, Fla., to an air base in Qatar, highly placed U.S. military sources told Fox News.
The sources said Central Command (CENTCOM) headquarters will start shifting people and equipment to Qatar, a small Persian Gulf state bordering Saudi Arabia, beginning Friday. CENTCOM commands and controls America's military in 25 countries in Central and Southwest Asia, the Middle East and Northeast Africa.
The moving of some elements of the headquarters to the Persian Gulf is a visible sign that the U.S. military is preparing for future operations against Iraq.
Fox News has also learned that CENTCOM commander Gen. Tommy Franks on Tuesday outlined a "plan for Iraq" to the Joint Chiefs of Staff in a secure room at the Pentagon. Gen. Franks had already made a presentation to President Bush last week at the White House.
News of the meetings came amid increasing discussion about the viability of the Qatar base. Situated about halfway along the western coast of the Persian Gulf, recent improvements to the air base there have been significant.
The Al-Udied Air Base boasts the longest runway in the Gulf, 14,760 feet, allowing it to accommodate up to 120 warplanes. Recent satellite photographs show how construction has improved not only hangars but troop barracks as well.
KC-130 refueling planes are seen in the latest satellite shots -- but during Operation Enduring Freedom Al-Udied has been the base for a large complement of U.S. warplanes, reconnaissance aircraft and several thousand U.S. troops.
The air base now hosts around 50 aircraft and 3,000 U.S. troops, but once work is completed it can house up to 10,000 troops.
The base is located about 28 miles west of Qatar's capital of Doha.
Since the fall of 2001, the U.S. military has been installing computers, communications and intelligence equipment at Al-Udied as a backup to the Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia.
The sources gave no confirmation of when Gen. Tommy Franks, CENTCOM's commander who is running the war in Afghanistan, will be going to Qatar.
In the past, Franks had alluded to moving the location of CENTCOM headquarters closer to Afghanistan and had cited Qatar as a possibility.
America has several bases in the Persian Gulf, the most prominent of which are in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain.
Military sources also told Fox News there will be an increased effort by U.S. and coalition aircraft patrolling Iraq's southern and northern no-fly zones to take out Iraq's air defense capability.
Bret Baier is the Chief Political Anchor of Fox News Channel, and the Anchor & Executive Editor of "Special Report with Bret Baier.” His book, "Three Days in January: Dwight Eisenhower’s Final Mission," (William Morrow) is on sale now.