WASHINGTON – The U.S. is moving its top war planners to the Persian Gulf to prepare for a possible war with Iraq, Fox News confirmed Tuesday.
Much of the U.S. Central Command battle staff will go to a base in the region equipped to coordinate a large-scale land, sea and air war, officials said.
The same Central Command planners were at the post, called Camp As Sayliyah, last month for a weeklong exercise before returning to their permanent headquarters in Florida, but this time it is not an exercise.
They are positioning themselves to kick off any military action against Iraq that President Bush should deem necessary, although officials stressed that the movement does not mean war is imminent or inevitable.
Meanwhile, Britain ordered a task force of ships and 3,000 Royal Marines to head toward the Gulf and mobilized 1,500 reserve soldiers, joining the United States in increasing military pressure on Saddam Hussein.
And in France, where there has been less support for Bush's war talk, President Jacques Chirac told French troops to be prepared for deployment if Baghdad does not comply with U.N. orders to eliminate weapons programs.
British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon said Royal Navy vessels and Royal Marines would be sent to the Mediterranean to train for possible action. A Ministry of Defense official said about 3,000 Marines would be aboard the ships, which include an aircraft carrier and three destroyers.
In Washington, a senior official who discussed the U.S. effort on condition of anonymity said the movement of Central Command battle planners, which began this week, is part of an accelerating buildup of forces in the Gulf region. Tens of thousands more combat forces are scheduled to arrive over the next few weeks.
Among the forces expected to deploy from U.S. bases in the next several days are F-15E and F-15C fighters and B-1B bombers.
Jim Wilkinson, the Central Command director of strategic communications, confirmed the decision to send the battle planners to As Sayliyah, in Qatar, but he declined to provide details on when they would arrive or when the command post would be ready to start a war.
"Central Command continues to cycle personnel into and out of the region," Wilkinson said. "We refuse to discuss deployments in advance. However, you can expect to see continuing deployments to Qatar and elsewhere in support of ongoing diplomatic activities."
Other officials said the command post at As Sayliyah will be operational before the end of the month.
In December, the commander of U.S. Central Command, Gen. Tommy Franks, oversaw an extensive computer-based exercise at As Sayliyah that many viewed as a tuneup for a war against Iraq. Franks said the exercise verified technologies that would enable him to coordinate with air, ground and naval commanders in the region.
Franks and his battle staff returned to their permanent headquarters in Tampa, Fla., before Christmas.
In the next several days, most of the same battle staff will be back at As Sayliyah, a desert encampment with newly designed command posts hidden inside enormous warehouses near the Qatari capital of Doha.
In the December exercise, about 1,000 battle planners participated. Wilkinson would not say how many will be returning this month, but other officials said it likely would be about the same as the December group.
If there is war, Franks would run it from As Sayliyah, but he is not returning immediately with his battle staff, officials said.
The senior officer at As Sayliyah in coming days will be Army Lt. Gen. John Abizaid, a deputy commander of Central Command. The other deputy commander, Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Mike DeLong, is at the Tampa headquarters.
Although the officers at As Sayliyah would command the overall war, the air portion of the campaign would be run from a facility at Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have not publicly confirmed that they would permit use of the facility for war against Iraq, and there have been questions about the degree of Saudi government support for the Bush administration's policy of overthrowing the Iraqi regime.
In a sign of closer U.S.-Saudi military cooperation in the war on terrorism, a U.S. official said Tuesday that the Saudis for the first time have assigned a military representative to Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Fla., making it the 44th country to do so; most arrived shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The Saudi decision is unrelated to the prospect of war against Iraq, officials said.
Although Rumsfeld and other officials say Bush has not made a decision on war, U.S. warplanes are frequently bombing air defense installations in southern Iraq. On Monday they attacked two anti-aircraft radars that a Central Command statement said had threatened pilots patrolling the "no-fly" zone south of Baghdad.
The planes struck near Al Amarah, a frequent target of U.S. attacks over the past few months. An airstrike on Saturday targeted three Iraqi air defense communications sites in the same general area. American planes also dropped leaflets in the Al Amarah area Sunday giving Iraqis the frequencies of U.S. propaganda radio broadcasts.
Franks was in Washington on Tuesday and is to meet with Rumsfeld and Bush this week.
At a Pentagon news conference, Rumsfeld said there is still time for Iraq's leader to avoid war.
"The first choice would be that Saddam Hussein would pick up and leave the country tonight. That would be nice for everybody. Or he decides suddenly to turn over a new leaf and cooperate with the U.N. and disgorge all of his capabilities," Rumsfeld said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.