America's rapidly expanding military presence in the Persian Gulf is raising a fundamental question: Is the buildup itself pushing the US toward war?
On one level, the troop presence is reinforcing US diplomatic efforts to try to resolve the crisis peacefully. It puts additional pressure on Saddam Hussein to be more forthcoming about what weapons he does have and to comply with UN demands.
At the same time, however, the presence of so many soldiers in the region will ultimately help force the decision of whether the US should go to war. The huge commitment of troops, tanks, and other gear - demanding complex logistics and timing - cannot be sustained indefinitely.
"By the end of February or March the Bush administration will probably have some sense of how the diplomatic track is playing out and will have to make some tough decisions," says Colin Robinson, an analyst at the Center for Defense Information here.
Since late December, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has ordered the deployment of more than 90,000 troops to the Gulf region. The flow of troops began with the deployment to Kuwait, announced Jan. 3, of the rest of the Third Infantry Division (Mechanized) from Fort Stewart, Ga., and Fort Benning, Ga.
Within about a month, three to four heavy US Army divisions are expected to assemble in the Gulf, where they will marry up with tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles, and other gear prepositioned in the region. Other heavy divisions could include the First Calvary Division based at Fort Hood, Texas, and the First Infantry Division and First Armored Division, both stationed in Germany.
Additional deployments are likely to include one light Army division, such as the helicopter assault troops of the 101st Airborne, analysts say.
Thousands of Marines from expeditionary brigades started heading to the Gulf over the weekend, deploying on ships from Camp Pendleton, Calif., and Camp Lejeune, N.C. They are expected to arrive in the region in three or four weeks, depending on their route.
One US Navy carrier battle group is currently in the Gulf, with another two ready to deploy there in days. US air power is also growing in the region, with more than 400 land- and carrier-based fighters, bombers, helicopters, and rescue aircraft already in position. A modest force of British commandos is expected to join the US troops.
The Pentagon is carrying out "a steady, deliberate buildup to provide the president the flexibility he needs to do what he thinks he needs to do," explains Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Richard Myers.
Meanwhile, the pace of the UN hunt for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the diplomatic debate over the inspectors' progress is complicating the timing of any military action. Chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix said Monday that inspections will continue in Iraq at least until March. International Atomic Energy Agency officials said this week that the inspections timeline could require another six to 12 months. Thus it's at least possible that a US-led strike against Iraq might be delayed until later in the year - and that could mean problems for the Pentagon.
COST is one reason. Troops get paid and fed no matter where they're bivouacked, but large deployments mean a big jump in expensive flying hours and ship movements.
Wear and tear is another. It's difficult to sustain troops in the field at peak efficiency for more than two or three months at a time, say military experts. If the Gulf buildup stretches longer, the Pentagon might need to rotate units back to the US, and send fresh brigades abroad.
But the size of the buildup is rapidly approaching the point where rotations would be difficult, since so many units - particularly key, high-demand ones such as chemical-detection teams - would already be overseas.
Then there is the weather. It is widely assumed that US commanders want to avoid fighting in the heat of the Iraqi summer, given that their soldiers may be operating in stifling, chemical-protection gear. Thus a variety of forces are pushing Bush towards a "use it or lose it" point for the Gulf force.
As the timing of deployments is complicated by diplomacy, the nature of the forces is giving hints of how an Iraq war might unfold.
Military analysts say the mix of US forces deploying suggests that a war to overthrow Saddam Hussein could look more like the last Gulf War than like the relatively unconventional Afghanistan campaign. A war would certainly involve initial precision airstrikes coordinated with early, rapid assaults by elite Special Operations Forces on airfields, suspected weapons sites, and other key installations. But such actions will be backed up by a massive armored force rolling across the Iraqi desert, they say.
A traditional pincer movement, with Marines taking the eastern sector and the Army taking the west and south, would close in on Baghdad and other cities, Mr. Robinson says. This would ensure the force required to collapse the Iraqi regime - with urban warfare if necessary.
The flurry of news on deployments may also contain elements intended to deceive the enemy. "We're going to preserve our options to mislead the enemy about our operations," said Douglas Feith, an undersecretary of Defense, last year.
"They are inundating us with discussion of deployments, make it difficult to track what is going on," says Patrick Garrett at GlobalSecurity.org, a defense think tank. "There is a ton of call-ups for Reserve and National Guard units, and my guess is most are not going."
• Wire service material was used in this report.