WASHINGTON -- About 500 Jacksonville-based sailors who just returned from the Persian Gulf have been ordered back with the rest of the USS George Washington battle group as part of a major, rapid military deployment for a possible war with Iraq.
Senior Pentagon officials said yesterday that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has signed an order to send "significant" forces to Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and other gulf nations in the coming weeks. Included in that order are instructions to the Navy to deploy two aircraft carrier battle groups, one of which is the USS George Washington, which contains squadrons from Jacksonville Naval Air Station and Mayport Naval Station. The other group has not been selected.
The classified order, a 20-plus-page document signed by Rumsfeld on Tuesday, identifies an array of forces and capabilities that will be shipped and airlifted to gulf nations in the coming weeks. The deployments total about 25,000 air, land and sea forces and were described by Pentagon officials as the largest to date as the United States continues assembling the pieces for an invasion of Iraq that many observers believe could come in February.
"The potential conflict in Iraq is about to become very real to Americans all across the country," said a senior military official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The Bush administration waited until after the holiday to issue the orders, officials said.
Some of the units being sent to the region are combat-ready, including infantry units, warships and strike aircraft, officials said. Many more are logistics, engineering and support teams, which will prepare for the arrival of even larger combat units in the months ahead, officials said. They will add to the 50,000 U.S. military personnel already in the region.
"We don't comment on specific unit deployments. However, forces will be flowing to the region to be in place should the president decide to use them," said Jim Wilkinson, a spokesman at U.S. Central Command, which would oversee operations in Iraq.
Rumsfeld's deployment order marked the beginning of what officials have described as a far more visible buildup of forces. Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last week that amassing forces necessary for possible invasion of Iraq would serve to convince Iraqi President Saddam Hussein that his regime will be forcibly disarmed if he refuses to relinquish weapons of mass destruction in accordance with United Nations Resolution 1441. The Iraqi leader denies possessing such weapons.
"We're going to continue to deploy forces in a steady and deliberate buildup to help the diplomatic process and shorten the time frame from when the president makes a decision to when we can conduct operations," one senior defense official said yesterday.
The Navy has been ordered to prepare two aircraft carrier battle groups and two amphibious assault vessels. …