Navy deploying 7 more vessels
Published: Tuesday, January 14, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 14, 2003 at 12:37 a.m.
WASHINGTON - Building up for a possible war against Iraq, the Navy is deploying a seven-ship armada with up to 7,000 Marines from California, matching a force already underway from the East Coast.
The new amphibious task force would mirror a seven-ship deployment of Marines that headed out over the weekend from bases on the Virginia coast, Navy officials said Monday, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Together the task forces will present Gen. Tommy Franks, the commander who would run a war against Iraq, with the option of amphibious assaults from the northern Persian Gulf, the officials said. The 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 war.
The movement of naval forces is part of a broader buildup of American military might in the Gulf region. About 60,000 troops already are in the area and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld in recent days has signed orders for an additional 67,000, including about 20,000 Marines. Eventually the size of the U.S. force arrayed against Iraq could reach 250,000.
The White House says President Bush has not yet decided to use military force to disarm Iraq, but the rapid pace of troop developments 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.
U.N. inspectors said Monday, however, that their investigation of possible Iraqi sites of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq could take a year.
Asked whether Bush was willing to wait that long before taking military action against Iraq, White House 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."
The administration has placed less and less emphasis on a Jan. 27 deadline - the date the inspectors are to present their first comprehensive report to the U.N. Security Council. U.S. officials last week characterized that date more as a milestone than a day that could prompt a war decision.
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 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, two amphibious transport dock ships that carry troops, vehicles and cargo - the Cleveland and Dubuque - and three dock landing ships that carry troops and amphibious craft like air-cushioned troop transports - the Comstock, the Anchorage and the Pearl Harbor.
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 aboard, is on a regularly scheduled effort. 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 many weeks.
The Navy's other major forces within striking distance of Iraq are the carrier battle groups USS Constellation in the Persian Gulf and the USS Harry S. Truman in the Mediterranean Sea.
The carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, which was to return 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 in case it also is needed.
The East Coast amphibious task force that has been ordered to the Gulf region is already under way. The amphibious transport ship USS Ashland and the dock landing ship USS Portland set off from Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base in Virginia Beach, Va., on Sunday. Two amphibious assault ships, the USS Kearsarge and the USS Bataan, left Norfolk Naval Station. They followed three other ships that left from Hampton Roads, Va., on Friday. Together the seven ships are carrying 6,000 to 7,000 Marines, officials said.
Also on Monday, the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson left its home port at Naval Station Bremerton in Washington state. The ship is scheduled for a training mission in the Pacific.
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