War uncertain, troops ready

With rising intensity, the American military is deploying much of its firepower to the Persian Gulf region.

The Bush administration continues to say that no decision on a war with Iraq has been made. But the momentum for battle is building, and fast.

On Monday, the Army announced orders for a 30,000-member task force, including the 4th Infantry Division at Fort Hood, Texas, to begin rolling out. The 3rd Infantry Division, from Fort Stewart, Ga., was already en route with 19,000 soldiers.

Over the weekend, orders were sent down from the Pentagon for the Navy to dispatch a third and a fourth aircraft carrier-battle group to the region, each with about 8,000 personnel, 80 aircraft and a flotilla of smaller warships.

Late last week, an amphibious task force consisting of seven ships carrying a total of 10,000 Marines and sailors set sail from California. The number of Marines in the Gulf, including members of a second task force that had set sail from the East Coast three days earlier, will soon approach 20,000 with more probably on the way.

Also last week, the Air Force let fly its F-117 stealth fighters from New Mexico, along with F-16 Fighting Falcons from South Carolina and some of its battle-management airships – Joint STARS – from Georgia.

The Pentagon has refused to say how many units and troops it has deployed or put on alert. The announcements have been coming piecemeal from air bases, naval stations, Army forts and Marine camps across the country.

“There is still a lot of rumor involved, but we’re looking at roughly 165,000 (people) that have gotten the order to go or have been told, `Pack your bags and square away your personal gear because you’re going to get an order to leave,'” said Patrick Garrett, a military analyst for GlobalSecurity.org, a nonpartisan policy group in Washington.

This estimate is in addition to the 60,000 troops that GlobalSecurity.org estimates were already in the region covered by the U.S. Central Command, including 10,000 in Afghanistan.

The British this week announced the deployment of 30,000 more troops. A small but unspecified number of Australian troops was ordered deployed Wednesday.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Monday that the buildup supported diplomatic efforts to get Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to disarm.

But there is little point for the buildup unless the United States and Britain expect to attack. Soldiers and equipment can remain only so long in the field or at sea. Both men and materiel wear down.

With 115-degree weather in the offing for the Iraq desert by summer, it could be especially difficult for ground troops, who may have to don suits to protect themselves from biological or chemical hazards.

Units that have been alerted, but not deployed, include the Army’s two major bulwarks in Germany: the 1st Infantry Division, part of which is off in the Balkans, and the 1st Armored Division.

Also on the list of units that could receive go-orders is the 101st Airborne Division, at Fort Campbell, Ky., which was used against Afghanistan last year.

The 1st Cavalry Division, based at Ford Hood along with the 4th Infantry, was instructed this week to send over a battalion of Apache helicopter gunships and a chemical-detection company. Military analysts expect it to get further orders to deploy forces if the buildup continues.

It will take three more weeks for all the Marine and Army units that are en route to reach their destinations somewhere near Iraq. An attack would seem unlikely until then, but American and British strength in the region is already substantial.

“The United States has been ready to go to war at any point for the last six months,” Garrett said. “They could go with what they have now and wage a convincing campaign against (Iraq). … But if the United States wants to wage war with three to four mechanized or armored divisions, it is going to take another month for them to be ready.”