Gulf Pullout to Take Longer Than Buildup
Even as the United States plans to start bringing its troops home from the Persian Gulf, the Pentagon is preparing to activate additional hundreds of reservists for peacekeeping and reconstruction duty in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, Bush Administration officials said Thursday.
Government officials, aware of surging American pride in the men and women of Operation Desert Storm--and growing impatience to see them return home--vowed to bring the troops back as quickly as possible. But they cautioned that the first homecomings are at least 10 days away.
And the drawdown of military personnel in the Persian Gulf will take considerably longer than the seven-month buildup, which sent 539,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines to the theater, officials said.
“It took seven months to get in. It will take a lot of months to get out,” White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater said.
Fitzwater said U.S. troops will remain in southern Iraq until all U.S. conditions for a final cease-fire are met, including the release of U.S. prisoners of war. But Administration officials denied that the delay amounted to military occupation of a portion of Iraq.
The Army hopes to bring home at least half of its 305,000 soldiers in the Gulf region by the middle of May, a ranking officer said.
Officials of all the services indicated that troops will leave under the principle of “first in, first out,” unless there are overriding military considerations. For the Army, that means that members of the 82nd Airborne Division and other members of the XVIII Airborne Corps would come out first.
The Army’s VII Corps, which won the war’s climactic tank battle against Iraq’s Republican Guard, will likely take the longest to return to its home in Germany, because it arrived last and has the most heavy equipment.
But a senior Pentagon official cautioned that all plans remain tentative because it is unclear whether the U.S.-declared cessation of hostilities will hold or what additional missions President Bush might assign to the military force in the Gulf.
“We’re not that far along in planning the draw-down. We just won the war yesterday,” Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams said. “This thing ended a lot quicker than we thought it would, and now we’ve got to think about bringing them back. It’s a nice problem to have.”
The return of the troops will take longer than the buildup because the troops were rounded up and sent as quickly as possible to put a force in place to deter further Iraqi aggression. “During the buildup, we were spending money like crazy” to rent cargo ships and charter civilian aircraft, Williams said.
The Pentagon paid premium prices to get the speed it demanded, he said. The draw-down will be more deliberate--and with a greater eye toward economy, Williams added.
Lt. Gen. Peter de la Billiere, the senior British commander in the Gulf, said in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Thursday that it could take “perhaps as much as a year” before the British get all their supplies, equipment and troops out of the region.
Ironically, some additional U.S.-based units and reservists may be shipped to the Gulf to expedite the draw-down, including replacements and transportation specialists to help pack up and load the departing troops.
The new reservists will be required both to fill needed jobs and to make good on Defense Secretary Dick Cheney’s pledge not to keep any reservists or members of the National Guard on active duty for more than a year.
Since the Persian Gulf crisis began, the four military services have activated more than 220,000 reservists.
The new reservists will be engaged chiefly in helping to rebuild shattered Kuwait, a Pentagon official said. Reserve troops needed include engineers, military police and water, sewage and power plant specialists.
Among the new call-ups are a group of 60 military police reservists based in Irvine, who are now preparing to leave for a year of active duty, Army officials in California said.
The 6632nd Port Security Detachment will likely be among the last reserve units called into active duty as part of Operation Desert Storm, according to supervisors at the 63rd Army Reserve Command in Los Alamitos, which oversees Southern California and parts of Arizona and Nevada.
For some in the unit, the timing was a disappointment.
“If you’re going to be called up,” said Cpl. Dyan Wallen, 23, a student in the Los Angeles area, “you want to go over there when the war’s actually going on. . . . Our lives are being interrupted as it is--so you might as well be where the action’s at.”
While the return of the Gulf forces to the United States will be a massive, complex operation, it will not be carried out under intense time pressure and will benefit from experience gained during the deployment, military officials said.
A knowledgeable defense official said that the Navy has moved quickly to rotate its forces in the region, but is expected to maintain a large armada in and around the Persian Gulf for the foreseeable future.
The aircraft carrier Nimitz and its battle group, based in Long Beach and now on maneuvers off the Southern California coast, is expected to turn westward today and make the roughly 40-day voyage to the Persian Gulf region.
The carrier Forrestal is to sail from its Mayport, Fla., home port on March 7 and steam toward the Gulf, arriving in early May.
The ships are expected to replace the aircraft carriers Saratoga and Kennedy, which left for the region in mid-August. Indeed, one defense official said the two ships and their nearly 20 escorts may comprise the heart of the force that will stay in the region for the long term.
While the battleship Missouri may also remain in the Gulf, its sister ship Wisconsin, which has pounded the Kuwaiti coast in recent weeks, is expected to return with the carrier Kennedy.
The Southern California-based 5th Marine Expeditionary Brigade, which landed in Saudi Arabia early this week after almost five months afloat, is expected to be among the first Marine units to return under the first-in, first-out policy.
But Lt. Gen. Thomas W. Kelly, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs, said Thursday that many units may remain behind, especially those specializing in combat-support functions that could be key to the mopping-up operations.
Kelly said that emergency ordnance disposal units--which sift for and neutralize land and sea mines--are likely to stay in Kuwait to clear extensive minefields laid by the Iraqis. Logisticians--in many cases among the first units into Saudi Arabia--also are likely to stay to oversee the departure of millions of tons of equipment and hundreds of thousands of troops, Kelly added.
“We have not yet talked to the Iraqis, so we don’t know if the war’s over,” Kelly said. “But I will guarantee you that it’s going to be just as rapid (a withdrawal) as they can make it, and I am certain that it will be front-loaded with as many individuals as possible.”
Staff writer Eric Lichtblau in Orange County contributed to this report.