Army to add thousands of GIs to its Gulf force
By Eric Schmitt .l WASHINGTON, Dec. 31 - The Army is sending thousands more soldiers from the Third Infantry Division in Georgia to Kuwait in the largest single ground deployment to the Persian Gulf since the war there in 1991, military officials said today.
One of the division's three combat brigades, about 4,000 soldiers, has been training in the Kuwaiti desert since September, but the unit's headquarters at Fort Stewart, Ga., received an order from the Army within the last day directing the rest of the more than 15,000 combat troops to join the soldiers in Kuwait, officials said.
"They all have deployment orders," Capt. James Brownlee, a division spokesman, said today.
The Pentagon has been steadily building up forces in the Persian Gulf for months, but this deployment is the first time a full division, which includes foot soldiers, armor, aviation and artillery units, has been sent to the region as part of that escalation.
The deployment is the latest visible signal that the Bush administration is moving toward military action to force Iraq to disarm.
The signal is all the more sharp because the Third Infantry Division specializes in desert warfare, and its brigades have been rotating through desert-training exercises in Kuwait and in Southern California for months.
In addition to the Army's order, the Navy today directed the Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier battle group to remain at sea for perhaps three more months and be prepared to steam to the Persian Gulf on short notice, officials said.
The Lincoln and its seven-ship flotilla recently completed a six-month tour in the gulf region, and last week left Australia on the way home to Everett, Wash., when the Navy ordered it to stay in the western Pacific in preparation for a possible war with Iraq, officials said.
Officials would not discuss the precise timing of the Third Infantry Division's movements, but they said troops would leave in the coming days from Fort Stewart, Fort Benning and Hunter Army Airfield, all in Georgia. Much of the division's equipment, including many of its 4,300 vehicles, is in Kuwait, but Captain Brownlee said other equipment would be shipped from Savannah.
The Third Infantry Division became a likely candidate to be sent to the Persian Gulf after Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld signed an order last Tuesday to activate an Army division for duty there, officials said. Mr. Rumsfeld's directive also set in motion the first wave of about 50,000 reinforcements that will be dispatched to the gulf region in the next month, roughly doubling the American forces there.
At the same time, Mr. Rumsfeld directed the Navy to keep two aircraft carriers and two Marine amphibious assault groups ready to be sent to the gulf on 96-hour notice. There is now one aircraft carrier in the gulf and another in the Mediterranean Sea, with the Lincoln in reserve as well as the George Washington, in Norfolk, Va.
Last week, the Navy activated one of its two 1,000-bed hospital ships, the Comfort, to be sent for possible duty in the Persian Gulf. The Comfort will leave in the next few days for the Indian Ocean base at Diego Garcia, Navy officials said.
The Air Force has ordered several units to prepare for gulf duty, a directive that could more than double the 100 combat aircraft now in the region.
The units include the First Fighter Wing, an F-15C fighter unit based at Langley Air Force Base, Va.; the Fourth Fighter Wing, an F-15E unit based at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C.; the 28th Bomb Wing, a B-1B unit at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D.; AC-130 gunships from Hurlburt Field, Fla.; E-8C Joint Stars ground surveillance aircraft from Robins Air Force Base, Ga.; and Predator reconnaissance aircraft from Nellis Air Force Base, Nev.
Logistics specialists like port handlers and crane operators are also arriving in the region, officials said.
The military's classified war plan for Iraq calls for as many as 250,000 American troops, about half of the forces that massed for the Persian Gulf war in 1991. But any American-led invasion force would be much smaller than that, with a sizable number of troops held in reserve, defense officials said.
The Third Infantry division is the first of perhaps three or four Army and Marine divisions — equipped with hundreds of M1 Abrams tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles and AH-64 Apache attack helicopters — that could be sent to the region.
The 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Ky., equipped with Apache attack helicopters and Blackhawk troop transports, is likely to be deployed. Any ground campaign is also likely to include elements of the 17,000-member First Marine Expeditionary Force, based at Camp Pendleton, Calif.
The current buildup is palpable in Kuwait. At Camp Doha, the Army has converted a Kuwaiti port packed with warehouses into major military storage. Hundreds of M1 Abrams battle tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles and fuel and cargo trucks are parked there. Some have been unloaded recently from ships normally afloat near Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.
And while military officials say they could start an attack against Iraq now if they had to, most planners are looking at mid-February as the optimal time for any offensive President Bush might order.
The Army deployments came as allied warplanes bombed Iraqi air defense radars and communications facilities late Monday in one of the largest strikes against Iraqi targets in recent days in response to Iraqi violations of the no-flight zone in southern Iraq.
Thirteen allied planes, including Air Force F-16's, carrier-based FA-18's and British Tornado GR-4's dropped 16 precision-guided bombs on Iraqi air defense sites, including a Spoon Rest early-warning radar, in Basra, Al Kut and An Nasiriyah, a military official said.
A few hours after the attack planes pounded their targets, an Air Force Predator surveillance aircraft, flying from its base in Kuwait, fired a Hellfire missile at a Spoon Rest radar, the official said.
Military authorities said today that they were still assessing damage from the strikes.
The allied airstrikes, coupled with the highly publicized troop deployments, appear to have had scant effect so far on President Saddam Hussein's decisions on Iraqi troop movements.
Most Iraqi forces have dug in to defensive positions around the country, but about 200 troops from the three Iraqi Republican Guard divisions stationed around Baghdad have moved south and west of the capital in recent days, a defense official said today.
The troops, which are from some of the better trained and equipped Iraqi units, did not deploy with their heavy equipment, the official said, leaving American analysts somewhat puzzled by the activity.
"We're watching them, but we're not reading a whole lot into it," the official said. "We expect they'll be back in their barracks in the next day or two."
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