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Marines to Begin Desert War Training on Kuwaiti Shores

By Tony Perry
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- aboard uss mount vernon

A thousand combat Marines were scheduled to go ashore in Kuwait on Tuesday for a long-planned desert warfare exercise that has taken on added significance because of the standoff between the United States and Iraq.

The Marines, from the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit at Camp Pendleton in California, will train with Kuwait army troops in the flat, sandy land near the border with Iraq. The outskirts of Baghdad are only about 300 miles away.

The decision to move forward with the exercise is the Pentagon’s latest show of military muscle in the region. In recent weeks the U.S. military has been building on already significant levels of troops and equipment it has positioned in the countries and seas around Iraq.

The permanent U.S. military presence in the region is in stark contrast to its relative absence 12 years ago in the months leading up to Operation Desert Storm. At that time, not so long after the end of the Cold War, far more of the Pentagon’s resources were still deployed in Europe.

But for much of the past decade, the Pentagon has based more than 20,000 American military personnel within close striking distance of Iraq, along with heavy equipment for at least four armored brigades and Patriot anti-missile batteries to protect them.

Senior defense officials also say that earlier this month, elite Special Operations troops began training alongside CIA units that could be used in covert counterterrorism operations within Iraq.

The Navy has accelerated training and maintenance schedules for many of its ships, including three aircraft carrier battle groups based on the West Coast, so they could be ordered to steam toward the Persian Gulf on short notice, a senior Navy official said.

Several thousand heavily armed Army troops also are moving into Kuwait as part of regularly scheduled exercises or troop replacements, while about 600 military planners from the military’s Central Command, based in Tampa, Fla., are now training in Qatar.

The Pentagon says the planners have deployed to the Persian Gulf to test the command’s ability to set up a headquarters in a crisis. But senior Pentagon officials say the planners could remain in Qatar to establish a new forward headquarters in the region based at Al Udeid Air Base outside Doha, the capital of Qatar.

The Air Force is also taking steps to prepare for a war, augmenting the more than 200 warplanes already based in the region to enforce the no-fly zones over southern and northern Iraq. The Pentagon disclosed recently that it had asked Britain for permission to base B-2 stealth bombers at its air base on the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.