About 60,000 soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen, as well as about 200 warplanes, are in or near the region. The Army alone has 9,000 soldiers, 24 Apache helicopter gunships and heavy equipment for two armored brigades in Kuwait.
Equipment for a third brigade is steadily arriving on ships usually based in the Indian Ocean, and some matériel will be stored at a new $200 million logistics base, Camp Arifjan, south of Kuwait City.
By late next week, four aircraft carriers will be poised to strike Iraq on short notice, with a fifth in Southeast Asia ready to steam to the gulf in a crisis.
Two of the carriers, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, are heading home, but the Navy will keep their crews together about two weeks longer than the usual 30 days after arrival in case they are ordered back to the gulf.
Special Operations forces in the region are refining plans to hunt for Scud missiles and clandestine weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. About 1,000 military planners, led by Gen. Tommy R. Franks, have assembled in Qatar and other gulf states for a computer-simulated exercise that begins Monday and is intended as a model for an offensive against Iraq, officials said.
Taken together, these are unmistakable signs that before long, President Bush will be in a position to order an attack to disarm Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein, and have it carried out within days, senior military officials said.
“The pieces are going into place that are the basic building blocks for a combination of military options,” said Senator John W. Warner, a Virginia Republican who will take over the chairmanship of the Armed Services Committee next month.
Or as one senior defense official put it this week, “We are rapidly getting to the point where if called upon, we’d be able to execute operations in Iraq.”
The steady buildup — brought together with little fanfare by air and by ship — is intended to put increasing pressure on the Iraqi government to disarm, and perhaps to persuade Mr. Hussein’s generals to defect or rebel against him.
“This is really their last chance to decide to either have a peaceful resolution, which requires giving up those weapons, or have us do it by force,” Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz said this week in Turkey.
For now any talk of war is muted as the administration prepares to review Iraq’s declaration of any weapons of mass destruction that it may possess. Officials say that the process of dealing with Iraq’s disclosure — including any subsequent diplomatic discussions, further weapons inspections and possibly another United Nations resolution — could delay any attack for weeks or months.
Pentagon officials say the armed forces could attack now, if required, but several diplomatic and military steps would need to be completed before the United States could go to war on its own terms, officials said.
The administration wants to use Turkey as a major staging base for American ground troops, who would swoop into northern Iraq to protect the vast oil fields of Kurdistan and combine with allied forces pushing up from Kuwait to put the government in Baghdad in a vise.
But Turkey has balked at permitting ground forces, prompting the White House to invite Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the leader of the largest party in Turkey’s new governing coalition, to meet with President Bush on Tuesday.
“We’re quite comfortable with what we can do from the south,” Mr. Wolfowitz said this week. “Obviously, if we are going to have significant ground forces in the north, this is the country they have to come through. There is no other option.”
Britain, another vital ally, is expected to contribute several thousand armored forces, but has not yet begun to send them.
American active-duty troops could be flown in quickly aboard chartered airliners to join their equipment. But any major campaign would require activating tens of thousands of reservists, largely to help defend American military bases, power plants and transportation hubs at home against possible terrorist reprisals. Mobilizing reserve units typically takes about 30 days, but a senior defense official said the Pentagon was looking at ways to speed up the process.
The Pentagon has plans to mobilize as many as 265,000 members of the National Guard and Reserves, roughly as many as for the Persian Gulf war in 1991, if President Bush orders an attack. Senior military officials said large-scale mobilizations would not begin before January, and even then would probably be made in stages to soften the political impact.
The force in place by next month would be large enough to begin the “rolling start” of an offensive, but additional armored and air forces would have to be sent from Europe and the United States to sustain a larger attack that could mass 200,000 to 250,000 American troops.
“We’d be ready to begin strikes in a meaningful way if told to do so, but then you’d then have to have a rapid, rapid deployment of additional forces,” said one senior Navy official.
Throughout the gulf region these days, there is a constant hum of military preparations. Army forces are conducting exercises in desert ranges in Kuwait that simulate territory they would roll across in Iraq.
Carrier-based jets patrolling the no-flight zone in southern Iraq carry out mock bombing runs against Iraqi airfields and military bases. Air Force engineers at Diego Garcia, a British base in the Indian Ocean, are erecting portable hangars to protect the sensitive radar-evading skin of the B-2 bombers that will soon be stationed there.
Planners are readying the heavy equipment and supplies now aboard ships at Diego Garcia that would sustain more than 17,000 marines for up to 30 days. Navy Seabees based in Spain have been dispatched to Kuwait for construction duties at two bases.
Military logistics and supply experts have been in the region for months preparing for incoming matériel. Tugboats, forklifts and other cargo-handling equipment needed to prepare ports for the arrival of tanks and other armored equipment are coming in.
In Kuwait, the Army has two brigades’ worth of heavy equipment in place. A typical armored brigade set includes 88 M1A1 Abrams tanks, 88 M2A2 Bradley Fighting Vehicles, and 16 120 millimeter mortars, an Army spokeswoman said.
Equipment from a third brigade stored on ships at Diego Garcia is flowing in. One of the Navy’s giant roll-on/roll-off cargo ships, the Watkins, disgorged a load of heavy Army equipment in July, and a sister vessel, the Watson, is on the way with equipment for an armored battalion task force, Army officials said.
Special Operations forces are planning covert missions that would be pivotal in the opening hours and days of any campaign. These operations would include destroying Scud missiles that Iraq could launch at Israel.
“We’re doing everything prudent and proactive that we can without starting a war in the process,” said one military official.