* US Forces Ready to Attack Iraq Nears 150,000 *

The New York Times

Well under half of that force is in the gulf region now. But three large deployment orders signed by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld — two in the last 24 hours for a total of 62,000 troops and one on Dec. 24 for about 25,000 — have set in motion crucial reinforcements of troops, armor, warships and combat aircraft.

The latest order, sent out overnight, directs 27,000 additional personnel to the gulf, including thousands of marines, an Army airborne infantry brigade, a squadron of Air Force F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighters, and two squadrons of F-16CJ radar-jamming fighters. An order late Friday sent 35,000 troops, half of them marines, to the region.

Until recently, the buildup had focused on bringing in equipment, ammunition and supplies and on putting logistics and command-and-control specialists in the region to receive and direct major ground forces. This week, the United States Central Command in Tampa, Fla., sent the vanguard of a 1,000-member battle staff to operate what would be its wartime headquarters in Qatar.

But the recent orders signal a new and important phase in the campaign: the flow of the main battle force that is intended to put pressure on President Saddam Hussein to disarm, and, on Mr. Bush’s command, to oust Mr. Hussein if he does not.

Assembling that large force in countries like Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia and perhaps Turkey will still take several weeks, although the troops in the region now could attack if they had to, officials said. About 15,000 marines at Camp Pendleton, Calif., and Camp Lejeune, N.C., recently received authorization to embark on Navy ships destined for the Persian Gulf. In the next few days, ships bound for the gulf will begin loading Army tanks in Savannah, Ga., and Patriot antimissile batteries in Beaumont, Tex.

“By mid- to late February, we’ll be in the best position to provide the president immediate flexible options to respond,” a senior military official said.

Even as signs emerged this week that some allies were seeking to forestall any possible offensive to give United Nations weapons inspectors more time to complete their work, Gen. Tommy R. Franks, the commander of American forces in the gulf, briefed Mr. Bush at the White House on Thursday on the impending movement of troops and the military’s Iraq strategy.

Earlier in the week, before the White House meeting, Gen. Richard B. Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, “We’re going to continue a steady, deliberate buildup to provide the president the flexibility he needs to do what he thinks he needs to do.”

Privately, though, military officials said starting an offensive before mid-February would pose problems. Much of the main combat force may arrive by late this month, but newly arriving commanders prefer some time to prepare their units in their new desert positions.

Diplomatic hurdles remain. Turkey has yet to agree to stage tens of thousands of American ground troops from its bases, jeopardizing Pentagon plans for a northern thrust that would allow an attack on Iraq’s overstretched forces from several directions. Such an American force would also secure northern oil fields and prevent confrontation between the Turkish Army and Kurds.

American officials expressed confidence that they would eventually gain the access they need for American forces, although they acknowledged that the delays had been frustrating. “I’m confident that the president and his team will be able to gain and maintain the access they need for an operation,” said Representative Duncan Hunter, a California Republican who is the new chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and who met with Mr. Rumsfeld this week.

Another complicating factor for an early offensive would be the hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Two million Muslims are expected to travel for the ceremonies, which culminate in mid-February. Although Mecca is far from any potential war zone, American officials fear a public-relations disaster if the United States began an offensive during the pilgrimage.

But military experts said the optimum time for waging any war in Iraq is a relatively narrow window between mid-February and early April. “If you go past March, you get into some really hot weather,” said Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, a retired marine whom General Franks succeeded as the head of the Central Command. “How long do you keep them there before it begins to affect training, morale and rotation schedules? It’s very costly.”

Pentagon officials have said that if Mr. Bush orders an attack, a force of about 250,000 troops would be needed — about half the number who fought the gulf war in 1991. But the initial “rolling start” of the assault would begin with a smaller force, with the rest held in reserve.

Although the buildup in the gulf has been visible for weeks, the shape of the specific force to be marshaled there has become evident in the United States only in recent days.

Mr. Rumsfeld’s directive on Dec. 24 led the Army last week to order more than 11,000 soldiers from the Third Infantry Division at Fort Stewart, Ga., to join a brigade of 4,000 troops from the division already in Kuwait. On Tuesday, the Army will begin loading M1 Abrams tanks, Apache helicopter gunships and other equipment on two landing ships, the Mendonca and the Gilliland, in Savannah.

Another military cargo ship, the Seay, is set to leave Beaumont by week’s end, loaded with Patriot antimissile batteries and wheeled vehicles from Fort Bliss, Tex., a military official said.

The Third Infantry Division is the first of perhaps three or four heavy Army divisions that could be sent, along with a lighter division, like the 101st Airborne, officials said.

The Army has summoned 3,000 officers and civilian planners to Germany for an exercise this month called Victory Scrimmage. Commanders will conduct computer simulations of Iraq war plans, officials said. The units include the First Infantry and First Armored divisions, which are based in Germany, as well as the 101st Airborne Division and the First Cavalry Division, an armored unit at Fort Hood, Tex.

Under Mr. Rumsfeld’s order on Friday, about 17,500 marines, including the amphibious task forces loading up at Camp Lejeune and Camp Pendleton, will leave soon for the gulf. They will join a headquarters element of more than 1,000 marines from the First Marine Expeditionary Force already in Kuwait.

For the first time in the current buildup, Marine Corps officials are preparing to tap heavy equipment and other matériel that is stored on ships in the Mediterranean Sea and at Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. The first ships are expected to begin unloading in gulf ports, probably Kuwait, as early as next week, a military official said.

In an unusual move, the Marine Corps this week barred virtually all marines from leaving the service. The order, the first service-wide freeze on discharges since the Persian Gulf war, prohibits the nearly 175,000 active-duty marines and tens of thousands of reservists from leaving or changing assignments, starting Jan. 15. Exceptions will be made for some people who had already filed to retire by April 1 and in a few other cases.

Gen. James L. Jones, who is leaving his post as Marine Corps commandant to become the NATO supreme commander in Europe, said this week that 65,000 to 75,000 marines would probably be involved in any military action against Iraq.

The Navy now has one aircraft carrier, the Constellation, in the Persian Gulf, and another, the Harry S. Truman, in the Mediterranean. Each carrier has about 40 fighter jets on board, including F/A-18 Hornets and F-14 Tomcats, and about 40 other aircraft. The Navy is also keeping at least two more aircraft carriers ready to be set out to the Persian Gulf on 96-hour notice.

This week, the 1,000-bed hospital ship Comfort left Baltimore for Diego Garcia, where it will await orders.

A formidable air armada is also taking shape. B-1 bombers have been leaving in pairs this week from Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., bound for Oman. Within the next week or so, more Air Force units are expected to send combat aircraft to bases in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the region, officials said.

These units include the First Fighter Wing, an F-15C fighter unit based at Langley Air Force Base, Va.; F-15E Strike Eagles from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C.; the 28th Bomb Wing, a B-1B unit at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D.; AC-130 gunships from Hurlburt Field, Fla.; E-8C Joint Stars ground surveillance aircraft from Robins Air Force Base, Ga.; and Predator pilotless reconnaissance aircraft from Nellis Air Force Base, Nev.

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