'Operation Infinite Justice'

2001-09-20 16:07

Washington - The Air Force is taking the first steps to dispatch dozens of warplanes to the Gulf area, setting in motion "Operation Infinite Justice" for the promised war on terrorism.

President George W Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, said on Wednesday, "The United States is repositioning some of its forces to support the president's goal." She would not elaborate.

Senior defence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said combat aircraft, including F-16 Fighting Falcons and F-15 Eagles, will be preceded by Air Force airlift control teams from bases in California and New Jersey.

The airlift control teams will establish what the Air Force calls an "air bridge," co-ordinating ground communications to match up refuelling aircraft with fighters and, later, bombers crossing the Atlantic.

It probably will take about a week to get the combat planes in position, one official said.

Asked whether Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had signed a deployment order, his chief deputy, Paul Wolfowitz said on Wednesday,"There are movements and we will see more movements." He would not elaborate.

Saddam not official target

Some officials involved in the military planning want Bush to target Iraq, but advisers close to the president say Saddam Hussein is not an initial target. He wants to strike Osama bin Laden and his alleged terrorist network, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

However, the Bush administration has put the world on notice that any nation - including Iraq - harbouring terrorists could be the focus of US strikes down the line.

"This is not a war against just one country or just one person," Wolfowitz said at the Pentagon when asked if Iraq was a target and whether the country was involved in the September 11 terror strikes that demolished the World Trade Centre towers and one side of the Pentagon.

Separate from the order to send Air Force planes to the Gulf area, the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt and the ships in its battle group left their home port at Norfolk, Virginia, on Wednesday for a scheduled six-month deployment to the Mediterranean.

Just before the carrier left Norfolk Naval Station, the Navy secretary, Gordon England, gave the sailors a pep talk.

"We're learning once again that freedom and liberty and the American way of life are not a birthright," he said. "It is time for us to pick up the mantle to destroy terrorism and remove this cancer."

The loudspeaker played "New York, New York" as the carrier pulled away from the pier.

The deployment from Norfolk includes more than 15 000 sailors and Marines, including 2 100 Marines aboard a battle-ready unit known as an Amphibious Ready Group, led by the assault ship USS Bataan.

The Theodore Roosevelt battle group includes two attack submarines, the USS Hartford and the USS Springfield, both capable of firing Tomahawk cruise missiles.

The Navy already has one carrier battle group in the Gulf û the USS Carl Vinson - and a second, the USS Enterprise, is in the Arabian Sea to the south.

Getting closer to Afghanistan

Sending land-based Air Force jet fighters to the Gulf would give the Pentagon leeway to move the Carl Vinson into the Arabian Sea, closer to Afghanistan, while maintaining enough aircraft to continue enforcing the "no fly" zone over southern Iraq. Airplanes aboard the Vinson have been making those patrols.

The United States is welcoming offers of military support from allies and friendly nations. Britain already has substantial forces in the Gulf area as part of a long-planned joint exercise with Oman. This includes an aircraft carrier, four frigates, two destroyers, other ships and group troops. The Ministry of Defence says it is Britain's largest naval deployment since the 1982 Falklands War.

The US defence officials who discussed Wednesday's aircraft deployment order said no planes had yet moved.

US officials continued to seek arrangements for access to military bases near Afghanistan. According to diplomatic sources in Pakistan, the United States has already begun meeting with leaders of the factions opposing the ruling Taliban in Afghanistan.

At Kharan, a city in southwest Pakistan, a small number of US military personnel have been spotted moving satellite and radar equipment at an isolated air base that has a long runway, according to a Western military official, speaking on condition of anonymity. Kharan is about 160km from the Afghan border. û AP