WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has ordered about 62,000 more U.S. troops to head for the Persian Gulf region in coming days, doubling the size of the force now arrayed on the periphery of Iraq, two senior U.S. officials said Saturday.
The movements make clear that the Pentagon intends to have sufficient force in place for an Iraq war as early as the first weeks of February, although the White House says President Bush has not yet decided to attack.
Just hours after officials disclosed on Friday that Rumsfeld had ordered nearly 35,000 troops, including two large Marine units, to ship out for a possible war with Iraq, the defense secretary signed another order to deploy 27,000 more troops, mainly Army and Air Force combat units.
One senior official with access to the deployment orders said the units designated for deployment in the latest Rumsfeld order include a squadron of Air Force F-117 stealth fighter-bombers. The F-117s, based at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., played a key role in the 1991 Gulf War.
The order also includes thousands of Marines and an Army airborne infantry brigade, the official said. The New York Times reported on its Web site Saturday that two squadrons of F-16CJ radar-jamming fighters also are included.
The troops’ actual departure for the potential war zone will be spread out over the rest of January.
Central Command, the headquarters that would run any war against Iraq, has begun dispatching its battle staff to a command post in Qatar, and it is expected to be operational near the end of January.
The Navy has two aircraft carriers within striking distance of Iraq, plus two others ready to join them on short notice. A fifth carrier, the USS Kitty Hawk has received an order to prepare to deploy to the Gulf region from its homeport in Japan, Navy officials said this week.
At Camp Lejeune, N.C., officials said Friday that about 7,000 Marines would be leaving soon. They are part of an amphibious task force, to include a variety of air and ground forces. A second amphibious task force of another 7,000 Marines has been ordered to deploy from the West Coast.
The two task forces are the centerpiece of Rumsfeld’s Friday deployment order. Officials would not reveal other details except to say the order includes forces from services other than the Marine Corps.
Elsewhere, officials said soldiers and fighter pilots from North Carolina bases and B-1 bombers and crews in South Dakota will leave soon for the Gulf region. Two B-1s left Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., on Wednesday to begin their deployment. Eventually, about a dozen of the bombers will go, along with about 500 personnel.
Rumsfeld’s first major deployment order was signed Dec. 24 and called for about 25,000 troops to head overseas. Earlier this week, he signed another order for about 5,000 more troops. With the addition of 35,000 on Friday and 27,000 on Saturday — plus the roughly 60,000 already in the Gulf region — the Pentagon is well on its way to exceeding its goal of having 100,000 there by Jan. 31.
Eventually the size of the U.S. force arrayed against Iraq could reach 250,000, but defense officials have said any U.S. attack ordered by President Bush could begin with 100,000 or fewer troops in place. The rest could be brought to the fight later or held in reserve.
As part of the amphibious task force deploying from the East Coast, three Virginia-based ships received orders Friday, the Navy said. They are the amphibious transport dock ship USS Ponce, the amphibious assault ship USS Saipan and the USS Gunston Hall. The three pulled away Friday morning from the Norfolk (Va.) Naval Station.
On Wednesday, the commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. James Jones, said 65,000 to 75,000 Marines might eventually be called on if there is a war against Iraq.
About 100 Marine reservists were called to active duty at Fort Knox, Ky., and shipped out Friday for Camp Lejeune.
At Fort Bragg, N.C., fewer than 1,000 soldiers from six units of the 18th Airborne Corps have received orders and will leave within the next two weeks, post spokesman Maj. Gary Tallman said. He would not give their number or destination.
The 18th Airborne Corps already has more than 13,000 troops involved in the war on terrorism.
At Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, also in North Carolina, all 4,500 members of the 4th Fighter Wing are on alert, base spokeswoman Lt. Beverly Mock said, but not all will head to the Gulf immediately. She declined to say how many would leave in the next few days.