WASHINGTON -- The United States is moving about 10 Navy ships armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles from the eastern Mediterranean to the Red Sea, senior U.S. officials said Thursday.
The move indicates weakening U.S. confidence that Turkey will grant overflight rights for U.S. planes and missiles.
From the Red Sea the cruisers, destroyers and submarines would be able to launch their Tomahawks -- typically fired in the opening hours of a war -- for flights over Saudi Arabia to targets in Iraq.
The ships are part of the USS Harry S. Truman and USS Theodore Roosevelt carrier battle groups, which have been operating in the eastern Mediterranean for weeks in anticipation of war with Iraq.
No decision has been made to move the carriers from the Mediterranean, but that could be a next step, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Each carrier has about 80 aircraft aboard.
It had been hoped that the Tomahawks could fly across Turkey's airspace, but the Turkish government so far has not granted overflight rights.
Tomahawks are satellite-guided missiles normally used in the opening stages of war to strike high-value, fixed targets such as government buildings in areas where the risk of civilian casualties is relatively high.
The Tomahawks are designed to evade radar by skimming the land or sea surface and were designed in the mid 1980s.
After the Gulf War, they became one of the U.S. weapons of choice to respond to Iraqibreaches of U.N. sanctions.
The issue of overflight rights for U.S. missiles and planes has been overshadowed by the Bush administration's struggle to win Turkey's approval to base 60,000 or more U.S. troops there to open a northern front against Iraq.
The Turkish Parliament rejected the U.S. request for basing rights earlier this month.
Pentagon officials said Thursday it appeared increasingly unlikely that the Army would position its 4th Infantry Division in Turkey, as originally planned.
About three dozen cargo ships with the 4th Infantry Division's weaponry, equipment and supplies have been waiting off the Turkish coast for weeks.
The troops are still at their base in Fort Hood, Texas.
During the 1991 Gulf War the Navy positioned carriers and Tomahawk-launching ships in the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf.