As George Bush was displaying his grasp of diplomatic vocabulary in front of the UN yesterday, 7,000 miles away in the Gulf his fellow Americans were speaking a different language.
Their words were military terms: frigates, bombers, air defense fighters, refueling
tankers, carrier battle groups, reconnaissance planes, special forces. All these
things are on their way to the region or already in position in readiness for
a possible attack on Iraq.
In the most blunt indication yet that the US administration's threat is not an idle one and it will force Iraq if necessary to meet its UN pledges, the US central command will move its headquarters to Qatar in November, perhaps indefinitely. The relocation is the culmination of a series of low-key moves on the Gulf chessboard designed to put all the pieces in place for a rapid US assault should the UN route now being pursued by Washington fail.
The establishment of command posts and the pre-positioning of heavy equipment
in the region over the past year have put central command (CENTCOM) in a position
to launch a strike on Baghdad within a fortnight of the order being given, if
it is decided to mount the operation with a fast and light force of 50,000. There
are about 30,000 American troops in the region already.
"It would take 10 days to bring in the additional equipment, 10 days to airlift the troops and 10 days to get to Baghdad," said John Pike, the head of GlobalSecurity.org, a thinktank which closely monitors military movements.
Nor would it take long to complete the military build-up if it were decided
to play it safe and gather an overwhelming force of 200,000 or more before striking.
Under CENTCOM's blueprint for a full-scale invasion, Operation Plan 1003, the
force could be assembled in two months. That would be much faster than the six
months' build-up in the last Gulf war, partly because it would involve fewer troops,
partly because the sluggish US military machine has become gradually more nimble.
The deployment of CENTCOM's headquarters from Florida to Qatar is officially
part of a biennial exercise called Internal Look and is supposed to last a week.
However it is highly unusual for General Tommy Franks, the man who would command
an Iraqi invasion, and 600 of his top staff, to take part in such a distant relocation.
The Pentagon has also made it clear that the move could be permanent.
In the past few months, the $1.7bn al-Udeid base in Qatar has been expanded
and enhanced to serve as an alternative to Saudi Arabia, which acted host to US
headquarters in the first Gulf war, but which has refused to get involved this
time. Some Pentagon officials still believe that the Saudis will relent at the
last moment, and say that the Prince Sultan air base near Riyadh, where a hi-tech
command and control center was completed last summer, is their first choice.
The US air force has since the spring been moving computer equipment and munitions
to al-Udeid, home to the region's longest runway (4,500 meters). Engineers are
also at work replicating the base's state-of-the-art combined air operations center,
from where complex large-scale air raids can be coordinated.
Viewed on their own, each of these individual chess moves looks quotidian. Taken together, they start to look like a well-implemented game plan.
There are already 400 US warplanes in the region.
In another small sign of military wheels turning faster, the Washington Kurdish Institute received a call yesterday from the US air force seeking a "crash course" in Kurdish. It would have to start soon, an air force officer said, and some students might have to leave at short notice.
Gen Franks's force commanders are also already in the Gulf, having quietly established and expanded command posts there over the past few months.
The US third army, CENTCOM's ground component, set up its headquarters in Kuwait
in November, and work has been under way since then to transform it into a hub
for ground operations. A specialized marine unit with equipment to detect chemical
biological or radiological attacks, is also on the way to Kuwait.
The marine headquarters was ordered to Bahrain in January this year, to set up camp alongside the US navy's 5th fleet, which has been based there for years.
US special forces are also believed to have been considerably reinforced in the Gulf. The navy seals have set up a headquarters in Bahrain. Other units are in Kuwait, Qatar and Oman, where the SAS is also training.
Large amounts of equipment have been warehoused in the Gulf so that it is instantly
available when the order to invade is given. Mr Pike said there were enough tanks,
armored cars and munitions in place in Qatar and Kuwait for three heavy mechanized
brigades (a total of up to 15,000 troops).
Less visible, but no less definite, is the British move towards military preparedness.
The Royal Navy's flagship, the Ark Royal, is on long-planned exercises in the
Mediterranean. It could provide a floating command and control center for British
forces and base for Royal Marine commandos and special forces.
There are two specific ways in which the RAF could help the US - refueling
US navy aircraft and providing intelligence from high-flying Canberra planes equipped
with aerial reconnaissance cameras. The third - passive - contribution would be
the British island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. It was used by B-52 bombers
in the 1991 Gulf war and in the recent Afghanistan campaign. Equipment loaded
on to ships ready to sail from Diego Garcia could be in the Gulf within a week.
On the ground, Britain's contribution would consist of two distinct elements
- paratroopers from the 16 assault brigade, SAS troops, and possible marine commandos
dropped into Iraq by helicopter, and - in the event of a full-scale land invasion
- two heavily armored brigades equipped with Challenger 2 battle tanks.
These are based in Germany and are unlikely to be ready for action in the Gulf
before the end of the year, British defense sources say. On top of this litany
of military preparations, the bombing, of course, is already under way. Senior
British defense sources yesterday told the Guardian that US and UK aircraft were
stepping up "no-fly" patrols over southern Iraq to destroy the air defense system,
as a prelude to a possible invasion.
British defense sources said yesterday that US and UK planes were patrolling
in an "unpredictable" way. However, the past week's air strikes show that they
are attacking targets over a wide area.
The targets have included a large Iraqi military base 250 miles south-west of Baghdad and an anti-ship missile base near the southern port of Basra. One of the reasons why the patrols have increased is that US radar-jamming "Prowler" aircraft have returned to the Gulf after action in Afghanistan. British Tornado fighters and bombers based in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia rely on American planes to jam Iraqi radar.
British defense sources have now given up the pretence that the southern no-fly
zone is a humanitarian exercise designed to protect Iraqi Shias and Marsh Arabs.
They too are increasingly bluntly speaking the language of war.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002