The military command that would run a war against Iraq is preparing to set up shop in the Persian Gulf for at least a few weeks to test communications links with key battle staffs in the area.
The move, described by officials as an exercise, could prove more lasting if President Bush approves a military plan to disarm Iraq, officials said. Gen. Tommy Franks, the commanding general of Central Command, said Tuesday he will oversee the command post at al-Udeid air base in Qatar for a week or so in early December.
"Does it give us increased capability? You bet," Franks told a Pentagon news conference.
Franks said that while Bush has not decided whether to use military force against Iraq, U.S. troops are prepared to carry out whatever mission they are given.
"In fact, that's what our planning activity is all about," he said.
Franks, whose headquarters is in Tampa, Fla., was in Washington to meet with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. Franks said they discussed his recent visit to the Gulf region.
Asked to comment on the uncertainty over resuming United Nations weapons inspections in Iraq, and whether the Bush administration would attack Iraq without full U.N. backing, Franks said the "best case" would be to build an international coalition of forces to take on Iraq.
"My sense is that we have a great many friends, partners and allies who see the situation the same way we do. And I'll leave it at that," he said.
Asked for his assessment of whether Iraq has ties to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network, Franks said he cared less about that than the potential for Iraq to provide weapons of mass destruction to any number of terrorist groups.
"The linkages between the government of Iraq and other transnational terrorist organizations like al-Qaida is not the issue with me," he said. "The issue is the potential of a state with weapons of mass destruction passing those weapons of mass destruction to proven terrorist capability. And I believe that that risk exists."
Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Tuesday to attend a joint planning committee meeting with other U.S. officials and their Saudi counterparts. Also at the talks were Peter Rodman, the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs; U.S. ambassador Bob Jordan; and Lincoln Bloomfield, the assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs.
U.S. forces at Prince Sultan Air Base in central Saudi Arabia maintain an elaborate air command center that could be used to coordinate strikes against Iraq. Because it is not clear whether the Saudi government would allow that, Franks has established a similar capability at al-Udeid air base in neighboring Qatar.
Starting in late November, Central Command will pack up and ship to al-Udeid a set of modular buildings and communications equipment that are designed to replicate the command functions of Franks' permanent headquarters in Florida.
The deployable command post will be used in an exercise in early December called Internal Look, Franks said. It will test communications links with the land, sea and air components that comprise Central Command forces in the Gulf region — namely, Army commanders in Kuwait, air commanders in Saudi Arabia and the Navy's 5th Fleet in Bahrain.
Between 600 and 1,000 troops will operate the command post at al-Udeid, which already is hosting more than 3,000 U.S. troops and numerous support aircraft. Franks said he has not yet decided whether the command post and its staff would return to Florida when the Internal Look exercise is finished in mid-December.