WASHINGTON – A second U.S. Navy aircraft carrier departed the Persian Gulf on Thursday, leaving only the USS Nimitz battle group on station in the Gulf, defense officials.
With the air campaign winding down, both the Navy and the Air Force are bringing aircraft home to allow pilots and crews a respite after one of the most intense air campaigns in history.
The USS Constellation, on its final overseas mission before going into retirement, left the Gulf Thursday, one day after the carrier USS Kitty Hawk departed for its homeport in Yokosuka, Japan, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Two other carriers that participated in the air war from positions in the eastern Mediterranean -- the USS Harry S. Truman and the USS Theodore Roosevelt -- are going to alternate on port visits in the Mediterranean in coming days but not head home yet, the officials said.
The war's commander, Gen. Tommy Franks, briefed President Bush from inside one of Saddam Hussein's palaces in Baghdad Wednesday. In visible disgust at the opulence, Franks said, "It's the oil for palace program" -- a biting reference to the U.N. oil-for-food effort.
At the Pentagon, Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal said Franks probably would move some sort of military headquarters operation into Iraq soon.
"Whether it will be located in Baghdad proper, I can't say," McChrystal, vice director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters. "But at some point, I think as he transitions to the next phase, he would probably recommend and stand up that kind of headquarters and put it right within Iraq."
The head of U.S. reconstruction efforts in Iraq, retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, also is expected to move his headquarters into Iraq from Kuwait soon. Garner held a meeting Tuesday in the ancient city of Ur to bring together about 80 representatives of various groups within Iraq to begin discussions about a post-Saddam government.
In northern Iraq, a confrontation under murky circumstances around a bank in the city of Mosul Wednesday left three Iraqis dead. Some Iraqis charged they were innocent victims shot down when local police tried to drive away looters. U.S. military officials said they had no clear information about the incident.
The Pentagon said Thursday the war's official death toll rose by one to 126. It did not immediately have information about the latest death.
On Wednesday the Pentagon identified the remains of Marine Cpl. Kemaphoom A. Chanawongse, 22, of Waterford, Conn., who was killed in a March 23 firefight near Nasiriyah, Iraq. He had previously been listed as missing in action. There are now three Americans listed as missing.