WASHINGTON – The Pentagon, preparing for possible war in Iraq, is dispatching an enormous array of naval combat power to the Persian Gulf region, including two seven-ship armadas carrying thousands of Marines.
The Navy also is prepared to put as many as six aircraft carriers within striking distance of Iraq. Two already are in position, two are prepared to sprint to the region and two are gearing up for possible deployment.
The latest naval movements are part of a broader buildup of U.S. air, land and sea power in the gulf region as President Bush contemplates whether to use military force to disarm Iraq. Administration officials hope the size of the buildup alone will add to the pressure on Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to give up chemical and biological weapons that U.S. officials say he is hiding but that Saddam insists do not exist.
Despite the movements of ships and personnel, the White House spokesman denied on Monday that Bush has an "artificial timetable" that would trigger hostilities.
Asked whether the president was willing to wait a year, which U.N. weapons inspectors said Monday might be necessary for a definitive reading on Iraq's armory, presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer said: "The president has not put any type of artificial timetable on how long he believes it's necessary for Saddam Hussein to prove to the world that he's going to comply."
Also on Monday, officials disclosed that the Navy is preparing to deploy as early as this week a seven-ship armada with 6,000 to 7,000 Marines from California. The amphibious force would mirror a seven-ship deployment of about 7,000 Marines from the East Coast, which headed out over the weekend, the officials said.
Together the task forces will present Gen. Tommy Franks, the Central Command commander, who would run a war against Iraq, with the option of amphibious assaults from the northern Persian Gulf, the officials said. Marines also could go ashore in Kuwait to be part of an Army-led land attack into southern Iraq.
Trained to operate in austere environments, the Marines also could move by helicopter into Iraq from their ships in the Gulf or from Kuwait to establish forward bases, as they did in southern Afghanistan early in that 2001 war.
About 60,000 U.S. troops currently are in the Gulf region, and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld signed orders in recent days for an additional 67,000 to go there over the next few weeks. Eventually the size of the U.S. force arrayed against Iraq could reach 250,000.
Even though the White House says Bush has not yet decided to attack, the rapid pace of troop deployments has convinced many that a U.S.-led invasion could be only weeks away. Central Command is sending much of its battle staff to a command post in Qatar, where Franks would direct a war, and officials have said the post is likely to be ready for operations by the end of this month.
The top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee said Monday he believes war with Iraq is inevitable.
"I'm convinced that the president is going to go in there one way or the other," Rep. Ike Skelton (news, bio, voting record) of Missouri said in an interview with The Associated Press.
The vessels pegged for movement with Marines from the West Coast are the amphibious assault ships USS Bonhomme Richard and USS Boxer; the USS Cleveland and USS Dubuque, amphibious transport dock ships that carry troops, vehicles and cargo; and three dock landing ships that carry troops and amphibious craft like air-cushioned troop transports — the USS Comstock, the USS Anchorage and the USS Pearl Harbor.
All seven are based at San Diego. The Marines they will transport are based at Camp Pendleton, just north of that Southern California city.
A separate deployment of Marines aboard Navy ships, led by the amphibious assault ship USS Tarawa, left San Diego on Jan. 6. That group, with about 2,200 Marines from the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, is on a regularly scheduled cruise. A similar-sized unit led by the USS Nassau and carrying Marines from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit has been off the coast of Yemen for weeks.
The Navy's other major forces within striking distance of Iraq are the battle groups of the carriers USS Constellation in the Persian Gulf and the USS Harry S. Truman in the Mediterranean Sea.
The carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, which was to have returned to its home port at Everett, Wash., this month, is being kept in the Western Pacific, currently at Perth, Australia, in case it is needed back in the Persian Gulf. Similarly, the USS George Washington, which returned home to Norfolk, Va., just before Christmas, has been told that it should be prepared to head back to sea on short notice.
The carrier USS Carl Vinson left its home port at Bremerton, Wash., on Monday for a training exercise in the Pacific that could turn into a deployment for war. The Norfolk-based carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, which returned from its most recent deployment in March 2002, is speeding up its training cycle and could be ready to deploy if necessary by February.