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US Military Commanders Heading for Persian Gulf - 2002-09-11

As the United States prepares for possible war against Iraq, U.S. military officials have said hundreds of members of the Pentagon's Central Command responsible for overseeing all U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf will soon be moving to the region. CENTCOM as it's known, is currently headquartered in Tampa, Florida. Although the move is considered only an exercise, the deployment is taking place in a country that could be used to stage an invasion of Iraq.

The Pentagon's central command oversees U.S. forces in a swathe of territory from the Middle East to South Asia. It's long had its headquarters at Tampa's MacDill Air Force Base, partly because of sensitivity in the Middle East to the U.S. military presence.

But a Pentagon official who asked to remain unidentified says about 600 CENTCOM staff members will be deployed in November to the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar, already home to some 3,000 American troops and a military base with the longest runway in the region. The announcement comes a day after CENTCOM Commander General Tommy Franks met with the Joint Chiefs of Staff to outline what is being called "a plan on Iraq."

No decision has been made though, on whether General Franks will move to the region or remain at his current headquarters in Tampa.

Qatar along with Kuwait, where another 5,000 U.S. troops are based, would be key staging areas if President Bush decides to attack Iraq, especially if Saudi Arabia refuses to allow bases there to be used in another Gulf war. Although the Pentagon calls this deployment only an exercise to test command and control capabilities, a U.S. Defense official says the buildup of personnel could become a key part of any U.S. plan to go after Iraq.

As one defense official said, "you can't guarantee what is going to happen three months from now."