Top Pentagon officials Wednesday gave new hints that military action against Iraq is approaching by declaring that the United States has all the Persian Gulf political support and almost all the forces and materiel it needs to wage a prospective air campaign.
Closing three days of top-level meetings, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen said Wednesday that the Gulf states’ cautious expressions of support and offers of limited military aid provide all the needed backing for the campaign that military leaders have begun calling “Desert Thunder.”
“The mission was accomplished,” Cohen said as he visited the aircraft carrier USS George Washington - part of the U.S. military deployment in the region - whose fighting personnel he praised as “the steel in the sword of freedom.”
Gen. Anthony Zinni, U.S. regional commander in the Middle East, gave another hint of approaching action to try to compel the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to allow unfettered U.N. weapons inspections by announcing that American forces may be “within a week or so” of having all they need, although there remain “a few more pieces to put in.”
The operation’s new name, disclosed by Navy officials, lends the military plans an even greater air of reality and was presumably chosen to remind Saddam of the destructive power unleashed seven years ago in “Operation Desert Storm.”
The new U.S. arrangement with the Gulf states requires them to provide no soldiers or fighter planes; their pilots presumably will stand by while Americans fly through Iraqi anti-aircraft and surface-to-air missile fire to hit Baghdad. Of the six nations, Kuwait and Bahrain will provide bases for strike aircraft, but not Saudi Arabia, in what has turned into a public relations black eye.
U.S. officials said they succeeded in getting the Gulf states to acquiesce to the plan and to giving what little help U.S. forces will need for an air assault, which they now believe the United States can carry out virtually by itself.
U.S. forces will have access to a huge inventory of tanks, weapons and other gear stored in the Gulf states; they are unlikely to need much that was stashed there during or after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
Kuwait will host almost 5,000 U.S. ground troops, as well as F-117 and A-10 aircraft. Bahrain will provide bases for B-1 bombers, F-15 and F-16 fighters; Oman has consented to having tankers flown from its soil. “Now we know we can do everything we wanted to,” one official said.
But whether these developments would sway the Iraqis was unclear. “I don’t know if it’s having any effect” on Saddam, Cohen said, adding that he hoped increased diplomatic pressure would bring a change in Iraqi attitudes.
Zinni said U.S. intelligence had seen “some movement but not significant” in Iraqi forces. Some analysts have predicted that Saddam would disperse his elite Republican Guard to make them harder to attack by air. But Zinni indicated Saddam had done this only to a limited extent.
There was one indication that strikes were not imminent: Sailors from the George Washington said they will begin four days’ shore leave in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on Thursday. That will leave U.S. forces without the carrier - and its 50 strike aircraft - until midweek.
The nuclear-powered carrier, one of about 30 U.S. vessels in the area, has plied the Gulf’s flat seas since November and some crew members confided they were ready for a resolution of some sort in the latest stalemate with Saddam. The deployment stirred a “real buzz” among the 5,000-member crew at first, Chief Petty Officer Jack O’Neill said. But, “it’s a little wearing being out here so long.”