A thousand combat Marines are going ashore in Kuwait today for a long-planned desert warfare exercise that has taken on added significance because of the standoff between the U.S. and Iraq.
The troops, from the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit at Camp Pendleton, will train with Kuwaiti soldiers in the flat, sandy wasteland near the border with Iraq. The outskirts of Baghdad are only about 300 miles away.
The decision to move forward with the exercise is the Pentagon's latest show of military muscle in the region. In recent weeks, the U.S. military has been building on already significant levels of troops and equipment it has positioned in the countries and seas around Iraq.
The permanent U.S. military presence in the region is in stark contrast to its relative absence 12 years ago in the months leading up to Operation Desert Storm. At that time--shortly after the end of the Cold War--far more of the Pentagon's resources were still deployed in Europe.
But for much of the last decade, the Pentagon has based more than 20,000 American military personnel within close striking distance of Iraq, along with heavy equipment for at least four armored brigades and Patriot antimissile batteries to protect them.
In addition, senior defense officials say elite special operations troops this month began training alongside CIA units that could be used in covert counter-terrorism operations within Iraq.
The Navy has accelerated training and maintenance schedules for many of its ships, including three aircraft carrier battle groups based on the West Coast, so they could be ordered to steam toward the Persian Gulf on short notice, a senior Navy official said.
More Troops in Kuwait
Several thousand heavily armed Army soldiers also are moving into Kuwait as part of regularly scheduled exercises or troop replacements, while about 600 military planners from the U.S. Central Command, based in Tampa, Fla., are now training in Qatar.
The Pentagon says the planners have deployed to the Persian Gulf to test the command's ability to set up a headquarters in a crisis. But senior Pentagon officials say the planners could remain in Qatar to establish a new forward headquarters in the region at Al Udeid Air Base outside Doha, the capital.
The Air Force is also taking steps to prepare for a war, augmenting the more than 200 warplanes already based in the region to enforce the "no-fly" zones over southern and northern Iraq. The Pentagon disclosed recently that it had asked Britain for permission to base B-2 stealth bombers at its air base on the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.
U.S. officials also say they have switched strategies to defend pilots enforcing the no-fly zones. Instead of going after guns and radar that could be used to target U.S. or British pilots, they are aiming at command and communications links, a strategy that might be more damaging to Iraq's ability to fight off an invasion.
Senior officials say the arrival of fresh units in the region is not in itself unusual. The exercises have been in the works for years. But the officials acknowledge that by ordering other units to stay put rather than rotate out, the military could easily enhance the sizable U.S. force that has remained in place since the 1991 war with Iraq.
Along with this buildup, the latest air, land and sea exercise, called Eager Mace, shows how U.S. military planning has changed.
Marines now routinely train in Kuwait, learning to cope with the region's blistering heat, the sometimes disorienting lack of geographic landmarks, and the powdery, blowing sand that can foul engines and bog down infantry troops. If the Marines are ordered to be part of a strike against Iraq, the territory will be familiar.
"We're here to demonstrate our readiness to go wherever we're needed to go," said Capt. Seth Folsom, commander of a motorized infantry unit.
The 1,000 Marines from the warships Mount Vernon and Denver will conduct day and night exercises, including firing live rounds from weaponry ranging from M-16 rifles to howitzers.
At the Marines' desert training facility at Twentynine Palms in California, use of live rounds is restricted for environmental and safety reasons.
Training in Kuwait will emphasize use of night-vision equipment and thermal-imaging technology meant to give Marines a tactical advantage. Training with the Kuwaitis might give Marines tips on how to beat the desert heat.
"They've been in the desert a lot longer than we have," said Cpl. Leif Paul. "I'm sure they have their own ways of desert survival."
The Marines will train close to the Army facility in Kuwait, known as Camp Doha, which now houses several thousand soldiers, heavy equipment for a brigade, a Patriot antimissile system and several dozen aircraft.
The Army plans its own exercise later this year.
Trained for Speed
The Marines would add speed to any force sent into Iraq. Folsom, for example, does not allow his Marines to sleep in tents, lest time be lost disassembling them if an order to move is issued.
"I want my Marines sleeping under the stars," said Folsom. "We train to be the kind of unit that can move at a moment's notice."
Despite conventional military doctrine that regards expeditionary units as effective only a few hundred miles from their supply ships, the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, also from Camp Pendleton, functioned effectively deep inside Afghanistan in November and December.
In a speech at Camp Pendleton in late August, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld appeared to indicate that Marines will play a key role if there is an attack on Iraq.
James Mattis, who led Marines in Afghanistan, has been promoted to major general. Michael Hagee, who oversaw all expeditionary forces from Camp Pendleton, has been promoted to general and nominated by Rumsfeld to be commandant of the Marine Corps.
Mattis went to Afghanistan after leading Marines in an exercise in Egypt that, like Eager Mace, had been scheduled long in advance.
The 1,000 Marines participating in Eager Mace are less than half of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit's strength.
An additional 1,200 Marines are aboard the Belleau Wood. The three ships, all based in San Diego, constitute an amphibious ready group.
The Marine Corps declined to pinpoint the Belleau Wood's location, saying only that it is in the gulf region.
Complications Over Iraq
Although the Kuwaiti government welcomes the training exercise as a way to continue the modernization of its military, the tension between the U.S. and Iraq has caused some diplomatic complications.
On Saturday, Kuwait's official news agency quoted the foreign minister as saying that his country would abide by any United Nations resolution against Iraq but that it opposes unilateral action by the United States.
The comments came just a day after Army Gen. Tommy Franks, the head of Central Command, visited Camp Doha and told reporters that U.S. forces are prepared if President Bush gives the order to attack Iraq.
Marines boarded the Mount Vernon and Denver in Bahrain on Monday morning after a three-day liberty in the capital, Manama, home to the U.S. 5th Fleet. The journey to Kuwait City was scheduled to take about 24 hours.
Times staff writer Esther Schrader in Washington contributed to this report.