WASHINGTON – The Pentagon is preparing and positioning U.S. forces in ways that suggest they soon will be able to move swiftly against the Iraqi regime, although President Bush says war is neither imminent nor inevitable.
Two aircraft carrier battle groups, each with about 10,000 sailors and marines, are within striking distance of Iraq and two more could join them by year's end. The Navy has accelerated training schedules for other warships.
The USS Lincoln arrived last month in the Gulf, and the USS George Washington, which had been on Gulf patrol, has shifted to the Mediterranean. The Lincoln has on board the first F/A-18 Super Hornet fighters jets to be deployed abroad. They have longer range and newer arms than the older F/A-18 Hornets.
The USS Harry S. Truman, based in Norfolk, Va., is due to begin a six-month deployment in early December, relieving the George Washington, and the San Diego-based USS Constellation is due to deploy near year's end.
One of the most significant signs of preparation is the decision by Gen. Tommy Franks, who would run any war with Iraq, to move his battle staff in November to a newly outfitted command post in Qatar, in the central Persian Gulf.
In addition, the battle staffs of the Army's V Corps and the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force are being moved to Kuwait, officials disclosed this weekend. They would coordinate the ground element of an invasion.
The Navy already has its 5th Fleet headquarters in the Persian Gulf and the Air Force has warplanes and a command post in Saudi Arabia, although it is problematic whether the Saudis will allow their use in an invasion of Iraq.
The United States also has warplanes and troops in Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Turkey and in Central Asia, but, like Saudi Arabia, it's not clear whether the Pentagon has completed arrangements for using bases in those countries for an offensive.
Most of the recent movement of U.S. land forces to the Persian Gulf area has been for routine training exercises, but they could shift to a war footing on short notice if Bush decides to attack Iraq.
Franks has said the shift next month to Qatar is simply a test of Central Command's ability to move the battle staff to al-Udeid air base and to command a simulated war from a new set of deployable headquarters buildings. In a recent AP interview, he said it was uncertain whether he and the battle staff will move back to Central Command's permanent headquarters in Florida when the exercise is completed in December.
"This just happens to be a very good time, a very good place and a very good way" to do the exercise, he said.
The timing coincides with other exercises. For example, about 1,400 U.S. special operations forces began an exercise, dubbed Early Victor '02, in Jordan on Oct. 6. They are training with Jordanian, Omani and Kuwait troops in the kind of unconventional warfare techniques -- such as operating behind enemy lines -- that likely would be important in any war against Iraq.
The Pentagon has not announced the exercise in Jordan, which may be more sensitive than similar sessions held over the past decade because of news reports that Pentagon war planners have considered Jordan a potential launch point for a U.S. invasion force. Jordan's public position is that it does not want to become involved in a war against Iraq and has pressed Iraq to accept U.N. weapons inspections.
More than 1,000 Marines from the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit have finished an exercise, dubbed "Eager Mace '02," in Kuwait. One Marine was killed and another wounded last week when two men identified by the Kuwaiti government as Kuwaiti civilians opened fire; other Marines then shot and killed the assailants.
The Army has kept a contingent of 2,000 soldiers in a permanent rotation at Camp Doha in Kuwait since the early 1990s, and it has added several thousand more over the past year. U.S. Air Force planes also are based in Kuwait, and the Air Force is considering moving B-2 stealth bombers to Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.
If the Pentagon began a full-scale buildup in preparation for war, it would need to mobilize many more forces than it has moved thus far, plus it likely would be compelled to call up tens of thousands of reservists. The Army also likely would send Patriot air defense weapons to countries in the region such as Turkey.
The Pentagon is accelerating vaccinations of troops against anthrax -- an infectious, often fatal disease. And Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is expected to order limited troop vaccinations against smallpox.
The Navy has long maintained a prominent presence in the Gulf. Its 5th Fleet headquarters is based in Bahrain, off the coast of Saudi Arabia. Carrier-based fighters have helped enforce a "no fly" zone over southern Iraq.
Carrier battle groups include not only a variety of aircraft -- fighter-bombers, electronic jammers, reconnaissance, search-and-rescue and others -- but also surface ships and submarines armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles.
"For the first time in a number of years we have the capability to surge a significant portion of our force," Vice Adm. Charles Moore, the Navy's chief of fleet readiness, said last week. He did not mention Iraq but made clear he believes the naval fleet is prepared to expand the war on terrorism beyond Afghanistan.