CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. – Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld signed orders Friday for nearly 35,000 U.S. troops, including two large groups of Marines, to deploy for a possible war against Iraq, officials said.
It was the largest single deployment order since the Pentagon began its force buildup in the Gulf last month.
Although Rumsfeld signed the order Friday, the troops' departures will be spread out over the remainder of the month, officials said.
At Camp Lejeune, N.C., the Marines' main East Coast base, officials said about 7,000 Marines would be leaving soon. They are part of a group the Marines call an amphibious task force, to include a variety of air and ground forces.
A second amphibious task force of another 7,000 Marines has been ordered to deploy from the West Coast.
The two task forces are the centerpiece of the deployment order signed by Rumsfeld on Friday. Officials would not reveal other details except to say the order includes forces from services other than the Marine Corps.
Elsewhere, officials said soldiers and fighter pilots from North Carolina bases and B-1 bombers in and crews in South Dakota will leave soon for the Persian Gulf region. Two B-1s departed from Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., on Wednesday to begin their deployment. Eventually, about a dozen of the bombers will go, along with about 500 personnel.
Rumsfeld's first major deployment order was signed Dec. 24 and called for about 25,000 troops to head overseas. Earlier this week, he signed another order for about 5,000 more troops. With the addition of 35,000 on Friday, plus the roughly 60,000 already in the Gulf region, the Pentagon is well on its way to exceeding its goal of having 100,000 there by Jan. 31.
Eventually the size of the U.S. force arrayed against Iraq could reach 250,000, but defense officials have said any U.S. attack ordered by President Bush could begin with 100,000 or fewer troops in place. The rest could be brought to the fight later or held in reserve.
As part of the amphibious task force deploying from the East Coast, three Virginia-based ships received orders Friday, the Navy said. They are the amphibious transport dock ship USS Ponce, the amphibious assault ship USS Saipan and the USS Gunston Hall. The three pulled away Friday morning from the Norfolk (Va.) Naval Station.
On Wednesday, the commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. James Jones, said 65,000 to 75,000 Marines might eventually be called on if there is a war against Iraq.
About 100 Marine reservists were called to active duty at Fort Knox, Ky., and shipped out Friday for Camp Lejeune.
At Fort Bragg, N.C., fewer than 1,000 soldiers from six units of the 18th Airborne Corps have received orders and will leave within the next two weeks, post spokesman Maj. Gary Tallman said. He would not give their number or destination.
The 18th Airborne Corps already has more than 13,000 troops involved in the war on terrorism.
At Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, also in North Carolina, all 4,500 members of the 4th Fighter Wing are on alert, base spokeswoman Lt. Beverly Mock said, but not all will head to the Gulf immediately. She declined to say how many would leave in the next few days.
Also Friday, the Army was readying details of an order that will halt all routine transfers of soldiers as the military buildup continues. Rumsfeld last month directed the Army and Marine Corps to issue "stop movement" orders, which allow the services to focus on mobilizing troops to the Persian Gulf rather than for routine changes in assignments.
The Army's personnel office is finishing details on which soldiers would be allowed to complete transfers -- such as those scheduled to move to bases overseas whose household goods are already being shipped, said Army spokesman Capt. Ben Kykendall.
A handful of family members watched from the pier Friday morning as the USS Ponce prepared to leave port at Norfolk.
Boatswain's Mate Jason Sandusky, 21, hugged his relatives before boarding.
"I'm just ready to go," he said.