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Decoy Marines Finally Hit the Beach--in Bangladesh : Cyclone: Pendleton troops who fooled Saddam Hussein mount a massive relief effort.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

After months of weary steaming in the Persian Gulf as a decoy for Saddam Hussein’s army, a California-based task force of U.S. Marines is finally about to land.

But instead of combat, helicopters from the 5th Marine Expeditionary Brigade, based at Camp Pendleton, today will begin shuttling food, medicine and communications equipment to remote islands and villages left destitute by the cyclone that ravaged Bangladesh two weeks ago.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. May 17, 1991 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday May 17, 1991 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Column 1 Metro Desk 2 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Marines--A report Wednesday about the arrival of the 5th Marine Expeditionary Brigade to aid relief efforts in Bangladesh incorrectly stated that the brigade had never left its ships while deployed in the Persian Gulf. Elements of the brigade did participate in the ground campaign against Iraq.

Over the next two to three weeks, at least 8,000 Marines, Seabees and other U.S. troops working from eight ships will launch one of America’s largest military emergency relief operations in Asia, officials said. Only the current U.S. effort to aid Kurdish refugees in northern Iraq involves more men and material.

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“Our effort is to preserve the living,” said Maj. Gen. Henry Stackpole III, head of the uninspiringly named “Operation Productive Effort.” “There is still the potential for disease out there,” he said, “and sickness that can account for more lives.”

Unlike their counterparts in northern Iraq, the Marines here will not build sprawling refugee camps or distribute thousands of tons of U.S. supplies. Instead they will work mostly from their ships, using 25 helicopters, two landing craft and four large Hovercraft to ferry food and other relief supplies already stockpiled in government warehouses.

“The problem is a simple one,” Stackpole told reporters. “It’s one of distribution of the goods that are already here.”

The government says at least 138,868 were killed when the cyclone roared ashore early on April 29, pushing a 20-foot wall of water that leveled villages, flooded fields and smashed bridges and factories. Misery has mounted since then as almost daily storms, tornadoes and floods have hammered the country, leaving several hundred dead and more than a million marooned.

In a worldwide response, 33 nations and international organizations have pledged $245 million in emergency relief to help the impoverished nation. The government now estimates cyclone losses alone at $3 billion.

While several countries, including India, Pakistan, Japan and Italy, have sent or offered helicopters, the invasion-sized U.S. force is likely to transform a relief effort that has been agonizingly slow to reach millions of villagers facing severe food shortages and epidemics from contaminated water.

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With most of its air force caught in the storm, the government initially fielded only two small helicopters to cover more than 120 miles of battered coastline. About 20 helicopters and two twin-propeller cargo planes ferried 50 tons of supplies Tuesday, according to Information Minister Manzur-e-Moula.

Ten giant U.S. Air Force C-130s along with C-141s and C-5 Galaxy airlift planes have arrived since Sunday, bringing advance Marine and Army airborne troops, medical teams, air traffic control equipment, trucks and five Army UH-30 helicopters. The copters will begin the first relief flights today to several low-lying islands that bore the brunt of the storm.

An amphibious task force, led by the Tarawa, a helicopter carrier based in San Diego, is expected to anchor tonight in the Bay of Bengal off Chittagong, the country’s badly damaged main port, and begin additional relief efforts Thursday.

Other task force ships from San Diego are the Vancouver, the Barbour Count and the Frederick. The Mt. Vernon and the Anchorage are based in Long Beach.

The ships will disgorge three heavy-lift CH-53 Sea Stallions, 11 CH-46 Sea Knights, six UH-1N twin-engine Hueys and several small command planes and choppers. Two landing craft and four heavy-duty Hovercraft, each capable of carrying 120 tons, will be able to run supplies into otherwise inaccessible flooded areas, officials said.

“We expect to run helicopter missions, mostly from our ships,” said U.S. Army Col. Jim Dunn, military attache at the U.S. Embassy here. “We don’t expect to put many Marines on the ground.”

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Officials said American engineers will erect facilities to turn sea water into drinking water and may help rebuild some of the hundreds of miles of earthen dikes and seaside embankments damaged or destroyed by the cyclone.

Stackpole and U.S. Ambassador William E. Milam met with Bangladesh’s acting president and armed forces commander, Shahabuddin Ahmed, early Tuesday and briefed the Cabinet after touring several cyclone-stricken areas.

But U.S. officials took pains to keep a low public profile and repeatedly insisted that Prime Minister Khaleda Zia’s fragile, two-month-old elected government had requested the Marines and would direct their operation.

“We are here to help,” Stackpole said. “We’re not taking over this effort.” He praised Zia’s government for making a “very gallant effort.”

The American arrival is highly sensitive in this mostly Muslim nation. Now-deposed dictator Hussain Mohammed Ershad sent 2,500 Bangladeshi troops to help defend Saudi Arabia last fall, but many here openly supported Iraq during the Persian Gulf crisis.

As emotions flared, mobs beat up several Westerners and attacked their cars, forcing several embassies to evacuate dependents.

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Zia’s critics immediately blasted the U.S. relief operation. “When you bring Marines, you cannot say any longer that your country is sovereign,” complained Mohammad Nasim of the opposition Awami League.

The Marines arriving here played an unusual part in the war. They were among 17,000 seaborne U.S. troops who provided the threat of an amphibious landing. The Marines never left their ships, but the deception pinned down thousands of Iraqi troops on Kuwait’s beaches. Allied forces, including a separate Marine division, instead raced into Kuwait and Iraq by land.

The task force was en route to the Philippines for rest and relaxation before finally heading home when it was diverted to Bangladesh. Before sending the troops, the United States contributed $7.2 million in disaster relief.

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