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WASHINGTON -- Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has put 24 long-range bombers on alert for possible deployment within range of North Korea, to deter "opportunism" while Washington is focused on Iraq, and to give President Bush military options if diplomacy fails to halt North Korea's effort to produce nuclear weapons, officials said Monday.
The White House insisted that Bush was committed to a diplomatic solution to the crisis. Any decision to bolster the considerable U.S. military presence near North Korea was simply what Ari Fleischer, the president's spokesman, called making "certain our contingencies are viable."
Rumsfeld, who Pentagon officials stressed has not made a decision to send the bombers, was acting on a request for additional forces from Adm. Thomas Fargo, the commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific. Fargo has concluded that the North's race to produce a nuclear weapon had worsened the risks on the Korean peninsula.
The order puts the bombers on a "short string," the New York Times reported, adding that the aircraft and crews are ready to move out within a set number of hours should they receive a deployment order.
The bomber force, along with surveillance planes, would be sent to Guam from bases in the United States. The deployment would bring a potent capability to the region should Bush decide that he cannot allow North Korea to begin reprocessing its spent nuclear fuel into weapons-grade plutonium for as many as a half-dozen weapons.
Rumsfeld is also considering sending an aircraft carrier to the waters off the Korean peninsula.
The U.S. Navy has long had a carrier deployed to the Pacific region, home-ported in Yokosuka, Japan. But because of the possibility that the carrier there, the USS Kitty Hawk, could be ordered to the Persian Gulf, officials were considering sending another to the Korean area -- possibly the USS Carl Vinson, which is on exercises in Hawaii, or the USS Nimitz, which is in port in San Diego.
Administration officials have confirmed that North Korea appears to be moving spent nuclear fuel rods that have been in storage since 1994. If processed into plutonium, those spent rods could provide the material for upwards of a half dozen nuclear weapons -- about one a month once the processing plant is in full operation, experts said.
Both White House and Pentagon officials insisted there are no current plans to attack the Yongbyon nuclear facility, the center of North Korea's plutonium project. But the bomber deployment to Guam would cut their flying time to a crisis on the peninsula.
The dozen B-52 bombers and another dozen B-1 bombers could certainly help the 37,500 American troops defending South Korea deter an attack from the North across the demilitarized zone. But American commanders in South Korea have long said they already have sufficient forces to deter such an attack, or at least fend it off until reinforcements could arrive.
There was no discussion, senior Pentagon officials said, about significant additions to the number of U.S. troops now defending South Korea.