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WASHINGTON -- The return of U.N. inspectors to Iraq confronts U.S. military planners with a dilemma.
On the one hand, they must avoid rushing too many invasion forces to the Persian Gulf region, where troops could end up sitting and waiting while inspections play out, risking losses in efficiency and morale and straining relations with Arab host countries. On the other hand, they must ensure that enough forces are in place to keep the pressure on the Iraqi government and to respond rapidly should inspections fail or should Iraqi President Saddam Hussein provoke a conflict.
Initially anticipating a possible decision by President Bush to attack Iraq as early as January, the Pentagon began weeks ago to bolster troops and equipment in the surrounding region. Several senior defense officials said they now expect that plans to send large numbers of additional ground troops will be delayed, although some vehicles, supplies and other equipment might continue to be shipped to the region and stored.
Plans for about 600 staff members of U.S. Central Command, which has responsibility for military operations in the Middle East, to travel from headquarters in Tampa to Qatar this month to set up a command center for running any invasion of Iraq are likely to proceed. Similarly, headquarters elements of the Army's V Corps and the Marine Corps' 1st Expeditionary Force, charged with overseeing any invading ground forces, will continue with orders to establish command posts in Kuwait. But some of these headquarters personnel may return to the United States after erecting their mobile operations centers, officials said.
Additionally, the Pentagon is expected to scratch plans to extend the tours of two aircraft carriers -- the Abraham Lincoln and the George Washington -- that have been within striking distance of Iraq, allowing them to sail back to the United States after the arrival soon of replacement carriers: the Constellation and the Harry Truman. In Kuwait, a fresh brigade of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division already has started rolling in to relieve a brigade that has been training there for nearly six months. The Air Force also is counting on rotating some of its warplanes in and out of the region.
Such movements will allow the Pentagon to keep troops fresh while sustaining higher-than-normal force levels in the Iraq area, notably, two aircraft carriers instead of one and more than double the previous number of about 2,000 infantry soldiers in Kuwait. The Pentagon also has deployed an unspecified number of additional special operations forces and sent a battalion of Apache attack helicopters from Germany to Kuwait.
While any delay in military action affords Iraq more time to strengthen its own defenses, U.S. forces also can benefit. The Pentagon has been using the prospect of war as motivation for supplying likely frontline units with upgraded equipment, including longer-range communication radios, improved navigation devices and the latest in digital electronic gear.
British military planners, meanwhile, are preparing to send up to 30,000 troops to join with U.S. forces in the event of an full-scale attack on Iraq, British military experts say.
"We know that the British commitment to a major war would be the 1st Armored Division. We would expect to see about 20,000 land forces, and about 5,000 navy and 5,000 air force," said Charles Heyman, a former British officer and editor of Jane's World Armies. "That would be about 30,000. We know whatever the Americans produce, the British would produce about 20 percent of that. That reflects our population and the size of our armed forces in relation to the Americans."
A military reserve callup is expected in the coming week, Heyman said, adding that four British minesweepers are already making their way to the area.