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WASHINGTON -- Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld signed orders Thursday sending the Army's 101st Airborne Division and the USS Kitty Hawk, a fifth Navy aircraft carrier, to the Persian Gulf, both major steps toward deployment of the full force necessary for a war against Iraq.
Coming a day after Secretary of State Colin Powell's presentation on Iraqi arms violations to the U.N. Security Council, Rumsfeld's moves put the Pentagon's steady buildup of forces into a final, climactic phase. More than 125,000 U.S. forces are now in the region, a number expected to increase sharply by mid February.
While the Army, Navy and Air Force are still three to four weeks away from completing what the three services consider to be optimal deployment levels, defense officials said it would be a mistake to assume military operations could not be begin before then, if President Bush decides to forcibly disarm Iraq. They noted that the Pentagon's war plan has always envisioned a "rolling start," with military operations commencing with forces still flowing into the region.
Rumsfeld's deployment of the 101st Airborne gives U.S. commanders a critical piece of an invasion force, capable of staging 100-mile air assault missions involving 4,000 soldiers in a single operation. With a total force of more than 15,000 soldiers, the air mobile division is equipped with 270 helicopters, including more than 100 Blackhawk and 40 Chinook troop transports and 70 Apache gunships armed with laser-guided Hellfire missiles.
Rumsfeld has already deployed two 7,000-member Marine amphibious task forces and the Army's 3rd and 4th Infantry Divisions, mechanized units equipped with hundreds of M1 Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles. Defense officials and analysts also expect the 1st Cavalry Division, based at Fort Hood, Texas, and parts of the 1st Armored and 1st Infantry Divisions, based in Germany, to be deployed.
Rumsfeld's order to the USS Kitty Hawk, now in Japan, will put five aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf region within weeks. The USS Abraham Lincoln is in the Arabian Sea, the Constellation is in the Persian Gulf, the Harry S. Truman is in the eastern Mediterranean, and the Theodore Roosevelt just left Puerto Rico en route to the Mediterranean.
The five carriers, with 50 strike aircraft each, will be accompanied by their full battle groups, which means there will be more than 30 surface ships and submarines in the gulf region capable of firing a total of more than 1,000 Tomahawk cruise missiles at targets in Iraq.
The Air Force is still 125 to 150 planes short of its full force in the region and probably won't have them in place until the end of February. Thus far, five fighter wings, including a dozen F-117 stealth fighters, and a B-1 bomber wing have been deployed.
But more than 130 strike aircraft have been in the region patrolling no-fly zones over Iraq. Those planes, coupled with carrier-based aircraft and dozens of F-16 and F-15 fighters recently deployed, give the Pentagon a potent air arsenal now, with every Air Force and Navy plane capable of dropping precision-guided bombs.
TURKEY VOTES FOR U.S. TROOPS: Turkey's Parliament voted Thursday to allow U.S. troops to renovate Turkish bases for use in a possible war with Iraq. Some 3,500 U.S. soldiers are expected to arrive shortly to fix up bases. The 308-193 vote will be followed by a second vote Feb. 18 on whether to allow U.S. combat troops in Turkey. It is expected to pass.
U.S. PLANES DROP LEAFLETS: U.S. planes dropped nearly a half-million leaflets over southern Iraq on Thursday, including some saying American forces "do not wish to harm the noble people of Iraq," the Defense Department said. The planes dropped 480,000 leaflets near four cities. Some leaflets directed Iraqis to listen to U.S. propaganda radio broadcasts beamed from American planes flying over Kuwait. Others included a picture of a well-known Baghdad mosque and the message that U.S.-led coalition forces want to attack military targets, not landmarks.
BRITAIN ADDING FORCES: Britain will increase its Royal Air Force presence in the Persian Gulf to about 100 aircraft over the coming weeks, Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon said Thursday. The aircraft -- which include sentry planes, refueling tankers and fighter-bombers -- will be supported by around 7,000 personnel. A further 1,100 personnel would be deployed to support 27 Chinook and Puma helicopters. Britain is already sending 35,000 troops.
NATO SETS MONDAY DEADLINE: Stepping up pressure to end three weeks of stalling, NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson gave France, Germany and Belgium until Monday to decide whether to stop blocking a U.S. request for the alliance to protect Turkey in case of war with Iraq. Under a so-called "silence procedure" agreed upon Thursday, military planning would begin automatically to deploy early warning planes, missile-interceptor batteries and anti-germ warfare units to Turkey -- unless any of the allies raises an objection by 10 a.m. Monday.