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U.S.: Washington Builds Forces Near Iraq For 'Last Resort' War

  • Charles Recknagel

As U.S. President George W. Bush continues to stress that all options are open for dealing with Iraq and that war is a last resort, U.S. military planners are quietly amassing a huge force in the Persian Gulf. The force will soon number almost 100,000 soldiers plus heavy equipment, with more troops expected in coming weeks.

Prague, 6 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. military officials like to say as little as possible about the buildup of American troops near Iraq, often portraying the dispatch of warships to the Gulf, eastern Mediterranean, and Indian Ocean as "routine rotations" to maintain normal levels of U.S. forces in different parts of the globe.

But if the military refuses to give details of its deployment of forces -- in order to preserve the element of surprise in any future combat -- the rapidly growing size of the troop movements long ago surpassed anything of routine nature.

In recent days, Washington has ordered several warships, including the aircraft carrier "Abraham Lincoln," to remain at sea instead of returning to the United States from just-completed six-month tours near Iraq.

At the same time, another aircraft carrier, the "George Washington," is expected to soon go back to the Gulf area after returning to the United States just three weeks ago. Two other aircraft carriers, with accompanying battle groups of ships able to launch scores of cruise missiles, are stationed in the Mediterranean, and yet a fifth carrier is reported ready to deploy from its base in Japan if needed.

The movement of ground forces, too, is picking up speed. A surge of troop deployments in coming weeks is expected to double the nearly 60,000 U.S. military personnel already in the Gulf. That would bring forces in the region to nearly half the total number of 250,000 soldiers which some U.S. military scenarios envision as necessary for combat with Iraq.

President Bush met with troops late last week at the largest army base in America to tell them to be ready to fight. He told some 4,000 cheering soldiers at Fort Hood in the south-central state of Texas: "We are ready. We are prepared, and should the United States be compelled to act, our troops will be acting in the finest traditions of America."

He also said that it is now solely up to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to avoid a war by proving to the UN that Baghdad has no more weapons of mass destruction. He said if Saddam ignores that chance, U.S. soldiers will rid Iraq of his regime.

"Should Saddam Hussein seal his fate by refusing to disarm, by ignoring the opinion of the world, you (U.S. troops) will be fighting not to conquer anybody, but to liberate [the Iraqi] people," Bush said.

This week, the United States is deploying a former oil supertanker that has been converted into a military hospital ship to the Gulf. The ship, the "Comfort," is equipped with 1,000 beds for wounded soldiers and 12 operating rooms. A full staff of doctors would join the ship by air from the United States immediately before any hostilities began.

U.S. officials rarely speak about the number of casualties U.S. forces might sustain in a new Gulf war, but many analysts expect the number would be relatively small. One military expert, retired Army Colonel William Taylor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., has put the number at "far fewer than 1,000 [American and allied] deaths."

Taylor bases his estimate on the success of U.S. troops against Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War, when 148 American soldiers were killed and some 460 were wounded. He credits that low number to the superiority of U.S. planes, missiles, and tanks. The long-distance capabilities of the weaponry kept U.S. troops out of range of much enemy fire, and those capabilities have only continued to improve in the dozen years since Operation Desert Storm (the 1991 Gulf War).

As U.S. forces deploy -- with the main base for ground troops in Kuwait -- British forces are expected to begin joining them soon. British newspapers reported over the weekend that London will begin sending more than 20,000 troops to the Gulf possibly as early as the middle of January. The deployment will include another aircraft carrier, the "Ark Royal."

Amid the U.S. and British build-up of forces in the region, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has vowed to repel any attacks. Speaking today in Baghdad on Iraqi Army Day, he said his forces are prepared to confront an invasion.

Saddam Hussein also gave a sign that he may not cooperate with UN arms inspectors -- the prerequisite for avoiding war -- by accusing the inspectors today of performing what he called "intelligence work" for Western powers.

"Instead of looking for the so-called weapons of mass destruction in order to expose the lies propagated by those who try, in vain, to deceive public opinion, the inspection teams [have become] interested in compiling lists of Iraqi scientists, asking workers questions that are not what they seem to be and gathering information about army camps and military production that is not prohibited and other matters, all of which or most of which constitutes pure intelligence work," Hussein said.

Hussein is said to be planning to counter any invasion by forcing U.S. and allied troops to engage in urban warfare. The Iraqi military is reportedly digging trenches for tanks and soldiers in and around densely populated Baghdad. That is in contrast to 1991, when troops occupying Kuwait prepared front-line trenches in the open desert along the Saudi border. The Iraqi defenses in 1991 were easily encircled by the U.S.-led coalition's mobile armored forces, which inflicted heavy casualties on the Iraqi troops at a minimal cost to their own.

With both Washington and Saddam Hussein saying they are ready for combat if necessary, the main question now is when such a conflict might start. U.S. officials have refused to speculate on any time frame. But they are considered almost certain not to make a decision to fight before hearing UN arms inspectors give their first report on Iraq's disarmament progress on 27 January.

Many military experts have suggested that Washington would have to launch an attack this winter or be forced by Iraq's searing summer temperatures to wait for another opportunity in the fall.

But other experts say a campaign could begin even during the summer if U.S. forces decided to do the fighting at night, when daytime summer temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius cool to 20 degrees. U.S. soldiers are equipped with extensive night-vision equipment and routinely train in its use, making night fighting a standard part of U.S. military capabilities. Iraqi forces, by comparison, have almost no such abilities.

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