The Marine Corps issued an order barring virtually all Marines from leaving the service as the Air Force began sending dozens of fighters and bombers to the Persian Gulf in preparation for a potential war in Iraq, defense officials said Thursday.
The surge in deployments and the Marines' freeze -- the first implemented service-wide since the 1991 war against Iraq -- capped a dramatic week of military preparations. The U.S. Central Command began readying a command center at Camp As Sayliyah in Qatar that defense officials say could be ready to direct a war by the end of the month, and a spate of ongoing deployments is expected to double the estimated 60,000 troops in the region and significantly increase their firepower in the next few weeks.
Pentagon war planners have made no secret of the deployments, apparently in an effort to signal to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and the international community that the U.S. is prepared to lead a military coalition capable of bringing overwhelming force against Baghdad.
The eventual U.S.-led force could number as many as 250,000, military analysts said, but Pentagon strategists plan to begin with perhaps half that, bringing in others as needed in "rolling deployments."
"That initial force is going to be 100,000 to 120,000," said Clark Murdoch, a former Air Force colonel who is director of planning at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "If the president decides to go to war in early February, he will have the initial invasion force there."
The unusual move by the Marine Corps, ordered Wednesday by Marine commandant Gen. James L. Jones, bars the nation's 173,795 active-duty Marines and roughly 100,000 reservists from leaving the service or changing assignments starting Jan. 15. Exceptions can be made for those who have already filed papers to retire by April 1 and in hardship and other unusual circumstances.
About 1,000 Marines from Camp Pendleton recently arrived in Kuwait, and thousands more are expected to join them within weeks. The corps would probably send a total of 65,000 to 75,000 Marines to the Persian Gulf, largely from the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Pendleton, Jones said in an address Wednesday at the National Press Club.
The corps has begun using reserves as part of preparations in the event of a second Persian Gulf War. About 100 reservists from the Marines' 8th Tank Battalion at Ft. Knox, Ky., were due to report this morning, a company spokeswoman said. An additional 265 reservists have been activated with the 2nd Marine Division at Camp Lejeune, N.C., and will soon be deployed to the Gulf region.
Reserves have also been called up to fill gaps on other fronts, in some cases to allow the Pentagon to shift front-line forces closer to the potential battle area. About 300 Marine reservists are headed for the Horn of Africa, mostly from Grand Rapids, Mich., but also from Ohio, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Georgia, Marine officials said.
The Air Force on Thursday confirmed a surge of deployments to the Persian Gulf region this month. Eight B-1 bombers left Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota on Wednesday. A dozen F-15C fighter jets are expected to soon leave the 1st Fighter Wing at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. And 12 more F-15E ground attack jets are expected to depart the 4th Fighter Wing from North Carolina's Seymour Johnson Air Force Base within days. About five Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) surveillance planes will leave Robins Air Force Base in Georgia by next week, and pilotless Predator reconnaissance planes from Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada are expected to head toward the region soon.
The troop deployments come with a massive supply chain. The Army has deployed 11,000 soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Division from Ft. Benning and Ft. Stewart, Ga. To support them, two military cargo ships laden with Army tanks, Humvees, artillery pieces and helicopters are to set sail from Savannah, Ga., on Tuesday in the first deployment of heavy armor to the Persian Gulf from the U.S. since 1991, a senior military official said.
About two brigades' worth of weaponry, vehicles and equipment are positioned at U.S. bases throughout the region. One more military cargo ship, the Seay, is set to leave Beaumont, Texas, late next week, stocked with Patriot missiles and wheeled vehicles, the official said.
The Navy, meanwhile, sent two military cargo vessels Wednesday from ports in Jacksonville, Fla., and New Orleans to San Diego, where they are to load and transport to the Persian Gulf equipment and materiel to support Marines, a military official said.
The Navy hospital ship Comfort left Monday for the Persian Gulf, stopping only to rescue a Bermudan fisherman adrift in rough seas near Bermuda. Unwilling to delay its mission, the vessel continued to the Persian Gulf without dropping off Robert Lambe, 35, who will remain on board until the ship reaches its destination.
"Hey, life is good" for him, said Marge Holtz, a spokeswoman for the Navy's Military Sealift Command, which manages the hospital ship.
"He's got cable TV, three square meals a day, all the medical care he could want. He just might not like the idea of what he's headed for."
Times staff writer Esther Schrader contributed to this report.