WASHINGTON – After weeks of waiting off Turkey's coast, dozens of U.S. ships carrying weaponry for the Army's 4th Infantry Division have been redirected to the Persian Gulf, two U.S. defense officials said Saturday.
The decision ends U.S. hopes of using Turkish bases to move heavy armored forces into northern Iraq.
About 40 ships carrying the division's weaponry and equipment were to begin moving through the Suez Canal on Sunday, one of the officials said. Both spoke on condition of anonymity.
The 4th Infantry's soldiers, who remained at Fort Hood, Texas, after their weaponry and equipment went to the Mediterranean last month, are likely to go to Kuwait, the officials said.
The original plan had the entire division of about 17,500 soldiers heading to Turkey, along with some Army troops based in Germany. It was not immediately clear if the full division would go to Kuwait.
The redirected cargo ships are to begin arriving off the coast of Kuwait about March 30, one official said. All the ships would arrive by about April 10.
From Kuwait they could move into Iraq to serve as reinforcements if the ground war lasts more than several weeks, or as occupation forces after the Iraqi government's collapse.
The Army already had hundreds of troops into southern Turkey to facilitate the possible use of bases there as a staging area for the 4th Infantry, but Turkey's parliament refused to grant access.
Turkey also has been off-limits so far for U.S. aircraft flying missions into Iraq from aircraft carriers in the eastern Mediterranean, officials said Saturday.
As an alternative for securing northern Iraq with the tanks and other heavy armor of the 4th Infantry, U.S. special operations forces are now in the area and other conventional forces may join them, officials have said.
Northern Iraq is a particularly sensitive area because of the autonomous Kurdish region and the potential for Kurdish conflict with Turkish forces.
There were Friday that Turkish soldiers in armored personnel carriers had rolled into northern Iraq near where the borders of Turkey, Iraq and Iran converge. But the Turkish military on Saturday denied it. The reports had said 1,000 Turkish commandos had crossed the border.
The United States has no evidence of Turkish movements or new any new incursions in northern Iraq, a senior Bush administration official said.
Missiles attacked positions of Ansar al-Islam, a radical group linked to Al Qaeda, which controls a small enclave within semiautonomous Kurdish regions.