The Pentagon will begin sending battle planners to the Persian Gulf over the next week to prepare for a possible conflict with Iraq, and it expects the command center in Qatar to be capable of waging war by the end of the month, senior Defense officials said Tuesday.
Most of the nearly 1,000 war planners and other staff who participated last month in a military exercise at Camp As Sayliyah in Qatar returned to the U.S. Central Command's Tampa, Fla., headquarters shortly before Christmas. Over the next 10 days, an even larger number will begin to return to the tiny Gulf nation to lay the groundwork for the real thing, said a senior Defense official who requested anonymity.
Unlike last month's test of command and communications networks, the official said, the renewed deployment is not a drill. The military command center will stand poised to strike Iraq by the time United Nations chief weapons inspector Hans Blix and Mohammed Baradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, report to the U.N. Security Council on Jan. 27, the official said.
"By the end of the month, the staff necessary to make the Qatar headquarters operational will be in place and ready to move should the president decide to do so," he said. The move marks the most significant escalation to date of the military buildup in the Gulf, which could involve as many as 250,000 American and allied airmen, sailors, soldiers and Marines if President Bush declares war on Saddam Hussein's regime. This week the Pentagon put 10,000 reservists on alert for duty in the Gulf region, where 60,000 troops are already stationed.
Defense officials did not disclose how many war planners and staff would be sent to Qatar, but they did say that the number would likely exceed the thousand or so that participated in last month's exercise.
"If there was ever a chance there won't be a war, that window is shutting," said Harlan Ullman, a military strategy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
The chief Central Command spokesman, James Wilkinson, confirmed a flow of military officials to the region but declined to discuss details.
"The president has made no decision on Iraq, and we don't discuss deployments in advance," Wilkinson said. "However, you can expect to see increased deployments to Qatar and elsewhere in support of ongoing diplomatic activities."
The move mirrors the decision in 1991 by Gen. H. Norman Schwartzkopf, then the head of Central Command, to move his headquarters from Florida to Saudi Arabia during the Persian Gulf War. Unlike some other U.S. military commands, Central Command is not permanently located in the region for which it is responsible, primarily because few Arab nations -- whose leaders and citizens are largely critical of U.S. support for Israel -- want to host an American military headquarters.
It was unclear whether the move signals the Pentagon's expectation that a war against Iraq would be directed from Qatar, rather than from Saudi Arabia's Prince Sultan Air Base, a $1-billion facility built by the United States.
Saudi officials have privately told the Bush administration that they would allow the Pentagon to use its airspace and bases in the event of war, senior U.S. officials said on condition of anonymity.
Saudi Arabia recently became the 44th nation to send military representatives to Tampa to play a role in the global anti-terror war.
Army Gen. Tommy Franks, who as head of Central Command would direct a war in Iraq, is expected to travel to Qatar this month, although he will not be based there permanently, the official said. One of his deputies, Army Lt. Gen. John Abizaid, will serve as the senior officer in Qatar while another, Marine Lt. Gen. Michael DeLong, remains in Tampa.
The moves come as Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld made longer-term plans to expand the role of the special operations troops in the Bush administration's war on terrorism. The Defense chief said he plans to reward the special operations units that were key to overpowering the Taliban in Afghanistan by expanding the budget, staffing and authority of the Special Operations Command.
His decision suggests that the administration intends to rely on special operations troops as a central part of its strategy in the war on terrorism and in overall combat planning.
The increased reliance on elite soldiers is unlikely to change the way the Pentagon fights wars such as the conflict in Afghanistan and the potential hostilities in Iraq. But it is expected to give the special operations troops more leverage and resources in the less visible efforts to capture terrorists in Yemen, the Horn of Africa and other regions suspected as havens of Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network and other alleged terror organizations.
"This is about everything but Iraq," said Michael G. Vickers, a former Army Green Beret and CIA special operations officer now at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington public policy institute. "This is really for the long-term global war on terrorism."
In the fiscal year 2004 Pentagon budget, the administration is seeking an increase of roughly 20%, from $4.9 billion to roughly $5.9 billion, said a defense official who requested anonymity. The number of Army Special Forces soldiers, Navy SEALs and Air Force special operators would increase from 47,000 to nearly 51,000, the official said. Most of the additional staff would be assigned to the Special Operations Command's Tampa headquarters and the central offices of the regional military commands. Defense officials hope to improve aircraft shortages by adding 18 MH-47 Chinook helicopters and other aircraft to the Army's 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, military analysts said.
In perhaps a more portentous show of confidence, the command will for the first time have the authority to direct major missions itself rather than supplying troops and equipment and operating under the regional military leaders, reversing a command structure in place for decades. To free up resources, some duties -- such as routine training of foreign military troops -- will be transferred to conventional forces, Rumsfeld told reporters at a Pentagon briefing.
"The global nature of the war, the nature of the enemy and the need for fast, efficient operations in hunting down and rooting out terrorist networks around the world have all contributed to the need for an expanded role for the special operations forces," Rumsfeld said. "We are transforming that command to meet that need." Defense analysts said the announcement marked both a real and a symbolic change in Rumsfeld's efforts to transform a military designed to fight Cold War battles into a 21st century fighting force.
"This administration has obviously embarked on transformation in a big way," said Ullman, the analyst. "Rumsfeld's favorite poster child is Special Forces in Afghanistan on horseback. So don't think there's not something symbolic about having special operations lead in the transformation."