Hundreds of Marines Head for Persian Gulf

C By Tony Perry

cAMP PENDLETON, Calif. – As the United States continues to deploy troops in preparation for a possible war with Iraq, several hundred combat-trained Marines from Camp Pendleton left Thursday night for the Persian Gulf.

While the deployment has been planned for months as part of a military exercise, it puts the Marines on the possible front lines of a ground offensive against Iraq.

The Marines were set to take the 18-hour flight from March Reserve Air Force Base in Riverside, about 60 miles east of Los Angeles. A similar-sized group, led by Lt. Gen. James Conway, left last week.

The Marines are “prepared to engage in direct combat operations and major theater war,” if ordered, said a spokesman.

The troops are part of the acclaimed 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, which fought the Iraqi army in Operation Desert Storm.

In early October, the Pentagon ordered the Army’s V Corps, headquartered in Heidelberg, Germany, and the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, headquartered at this sprawling base in northern San Diego County, to establish command centers near the Kuwaiti-Iraqi border for a possible ground offensive against Iraq.

For security reasons, the Marines declined to identify the precise destination of the troops. The U.S. military has forces in Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates.

The military exercise, dubbed Internal Look, was meant to test the military’s ability to quickly move a command staff into a war zone. During the offensive against the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan, the U.S. Central Command maintained its headquarters in Tampa, Fla., causing some grumbling among troops on or near the front lines.

As part of the exercise, which by all pretenses has become a preparation for war, Army and Air Force troops will move to Al Udeid Air Base outside Doha, Qatar, to use a state-of-the-art computerized command center recently built at that isolated desert facility.

Several thousand Army troops are in Kuwait for desert warfare training. In late September, 1,000 Marines from Camp Pendleton engaged in a monthlong exercise there to sharpen skills learned at the corps’ Southern California desert training facility.

On Oct. 8, gunmen opened fire on Marines conducting an urban warfare exercise on the Kuwaiti island of Faylakah, killing one Marine and wounding another. That incident, and a shooting Thursday that wounded two U.S. soldiers in Kuwait, has increased the anxiety of family members of the departing Marines.

“Everybody is worried,” said one Marine wife, fighting back tears.

Just how many of the 45,000 troops assigned to the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force will be sent to the Persian Gulf is unclear. In early January, 2,000 Marines and sailors are set to deploy to the region aboard several ships that are part of the Tarawa Amphibious Ready Group. The departure could be sooner if needed, officials said.

Ron Bee, senior analyst at the University of California, San Diego-based Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, said President Bush is following a strategy used by his father. Bee noted that in the months before Operation Desert Storm, expeditionary units of Marines and other military personnel were sent to Turkey, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

“In traditional diplomacy, you have to back up what you say with a show of force,” Bee said. “The constant buildup of forces is a signal to Iraq that we’re serious and that we’re approaching endgame.”

Often when military personnel deploy overseas, little or no public notice is given. But this time, the Marines invited the media to cover the departure.

“They watch CNN in Baghdad too,” Bee said.