© St. Petersburg Times, published April 13, 2003
WASHINGTON -- With the war in Iraq winding down, U.S. military commanders plan to start sending home some warships and planes but continue building up ground troops to deal with security, humanitarian relief and reconstruction challenges, defense officials said Saturday.
Vice Adm. Timothy Keating, commander of U.S. and allied naval forces in the war, said two or three of the five U.S. aircraft carriers engaged in missions over Iraq will likely be dispatched soon to home ports. The USS Kitty Hawk probably would be the first to leave. The USS Constellation probably would go next, and the USS Theodore Roosevelt or the USS Harry S. Truman also might be sent home soon, he said.
A senior Air Force official said four B-2 stealth bombers have returned to their permanent base in Missouri from the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, and preparations are under way to send F-117 stealth fighters in Qatar back to the United States.
In contrast, plans call for more Army troops to keep flowing into the Persian Gulf region. Elements of the 4th Infantry Division and the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, recently arrived in Kuwait, have begun moving into Iraq. Next in line to deploy are the 1st Armored Division from Germany and the 1st Cavalry Division from Texas, officials said.
And Marines in Baghdad were told there is no firm date on when they will be sent home.
Lt. Gen. James Conway told the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, that more than half the 170,000-strong corps was deployed somewhere in the world, so replacing the Marines in Baghdad wouldn't be easy.
"There isn't a firm answer," Conway told a Marine who asked when they would leave Baghdad. "There's a global presence that's required."
Worried about tensions with North Korea and other potential hot spots, Pentagon officials are eager to withdraw what forces they can from the Persian Gulf and allow them to rest and recover. At the same time, U.S. military planners recognize a U.S. occupation force for Iraq will need to be bigger, at least for a while, than the invasion force of about 125,000 American and British troops. Just how much larger has not been decided.
U.S. troops were on the move Saturday, with Marines rumbling north of Baghdad toward Tikrit, hometown to President Saddam Hussein and many of his regime's inner circle, U.S. Central Command said.
A "significant-sized force" of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force moved out of Baghdad to rout suspected Iraqi military strongholds north of Baghdad, said Navy Capt. Frank Thorp, a Central Command spokesman.
There haven't been engagements and it wasn't clear how far the Marines would go toward Tikrit, the possible site of a last stand for his supporters.
He said the units were so far in the vicinity of Baghdad, closer to the capital than Tikrit, the last major city in northern Iraq not in coalition hands.
"They are moving north to commence ground operations (against) suspected Iraqi military strongholds," he said.
American special forces were wounded when their armored vehicle was strafed by a U.S. jet near Tikrit.
Shortly before dusk Saturday, men protected by sandbags in a house 200 yards away on the opposite bank of the Tigris River fired on a Marine position near the downtown Palestine Hotel.
Dozens of Marines from the 3rd Battalion of the 4th Marine Regiment scrambled behind an earthen embankment and answered with M16 rifles, light machine guns and at least one .50 caliber heavy machine gun mounted atop an armored personnel carrier.
The firefight lasted about 20 minutes.
"One of our medics took shrapnel in the leg," said Cpl. Fred Mahan, 21, of Royse City, Texas. That was the only U.S. casualty.
In central Baghdad, a Marine was shot dead by a man carrying Syrian identification papers.
SUICIDE VESTS FOUND: U.S. Marines have found scores of black leather vests stuffed with explosives and ball bearings, along with empty hangers hinting that suicide attackers might be outfitted to explode somewhere.
"Odds are high that someone is out there wearing one," said Marine Lt. David Wright, 27, of Goldsboro, N.C. "They were indeed dedicated to do something if they strapped on those vests."
The vests were found in what appeared to be a biology classroom with diagrams of cells on the walls. They looked almost professionally made, each nearly a replica of the others. Each weighed nearly 20 pounds, the black leather filled with blocks of C-4 explosive laced with ball bearings. Wires protruded from the vests.
BUNKER FOUND: American troops have discovered a vast underground bunker complex equipped with pressurized offices and bedrooms, gas masks and chemical protective gear, and enough sophisticated chemical and biological decontamination equipment to protect hundreds -- perhaps thousands -- of senior Iraqi leaders and commanders.
The complex, discovered Friday by troops of the 3rd Infantry Division, was inspected Saturday by a military chemical team from division headquarters. The team described the complex, next to gardens on the sprawling Presidential Palace grounds, as a command and control center designed to protect the Iraqi elite from chemical or biological agents.
MISSING SOLDIER'S BODY FOUND: Stone-faced soldiers bowed their heads as a chaplain recited prayer over the body an American soldier found dead Saturday in a shallow grave on the southern outskirts of the city.
The soldier had been missing and feared dead since last week when his infantry unit was ambushed by Iraqi militia in the Baghdad suburb of Al Dora. His identity was being withheld pending notification of his family.
U.S. Marines set up a checkpoint and searched car-to-car in preparation for their final push into the city.
Kut is the last holdout in the southern part of the country. Military planners expected the battle to be difficult and long. Early reports from inside the city were that foreign fighters had flocked there seeking to make a last stand against the Americans.
Fedayeen guerrillas loyal to Saddam Hussein -- the same militiamen that gave the Marines a fierce battle in Nasiriyah -- also are believed to be holed up. But refugees said the city was peaceful and paramilitary fighters had left town or replaced their fatigues with casual dress.
British forces have seized 250 rocket-propelled grenade launchers and other weapons believed to have been stored for suicide bombers in Iraq's second-largest city, according to British pool reports.
-- Information from the Washington Post, Knight Ridder Newspapers, the Associated Press, the New York Times was used in this report.