Ready To Move In

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If President Bush opts for a war with Iraq, how quickly can he have one? Pretty fast, it seems. It took the U.S. five months to build up forces before starting the war with Iraq in 1991. But they had to be drawn mostly from bases in Europe. With the cold war dead, most U.S. forces have left Europe for home. In the aftermath of the Gulf War, however, much of their gear has been relocated to a ring of bases set up in the Persian Gulf. Its proximity to the front line — and the fact that technology has made the military more efficient — means that by mid-December the U.S. should be ready to start fighting Iraq again, Pentagon officials say.

Air assaults would kick off a new war. America's $2 billion radar-eluding B-2 bombers could attack Iraq from bases in the U.S., England or Diego Garcia, and Navy warships already in the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean could pummel key Iraqi targets with long-range cruise missiles. Once Iraq's air defenses are crushed, more vulnerable F-14s and F-18s from three or four Navy carriers by then in the region could begin striking additional targets. The speed of the air war would depend in part on which neighboring countries — Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Turkey, Saudi Arabia — allowed allied jets to launch from their territory.

The start of an air war would probably be the trigger for moving more ground forces to the region. Already, the U.S. has some 30,000 ground troops and their equipment within striking distance of Iraq, Kuwait being the main depot. An additional 45,000 troops could rapidly be flown into the region to be married up with materiel stockpiled since the 1991 war at Diego Garcia, a seven-day sail away. Some military experts think 75,000 troops would be sufficient to overthrow Saddam. They could certainly start the effort while the U.S. pumped more forces into the theater.