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US Navy Hospital Ship Sails for Gulf - 2003-01-06

A Navy hospital ship has set sail for the Persian Gulf region, the latest sign of U.S. preparations for a possible war with Iraq.

The 1,000-bed Navy hospital ship Comfort left Baltimore Monday, heading for what a spokeswoman describes only as an undisclosed location in the Southwest Asia/Indian Ocean region.

The spokeswoman tells VOA that on board are the ship's crew of some 60 mariners plus 300 hospital staff. She says that if needed, 900 additional medical personnel will join the Comfort later, including a full complement of 60 doctors and 250 nurses.

Pentagon officials say the vessel is being deployed to the region to handle casualties from any possible war with Iraq. It is the latest and most visible evidence of U.S. preparations for a new conflict.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has signed deployment orders dispatching some 25,000 additional military personnel to the Gulf region, bolstering the nearly 60,000 Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine personnel already in the area.

Few details of the fresh deployments have been revealed for security reasons.

But one senior military official disputes reports of much larger deployments, saying Mr. Rumsfeld has so far not been what the official characterizes as overly ambitious as far as numbers of forces sent to the Gulf are concerned.

Nevertheless, an Army spokesman has confirmed that some 10,000 Reserve troops have now been put on alert for possible active duty to support the military build-up in the Gulf.

The spokesman acknowledges the size of the alert affecting some 275 Reserve units is fairly dramatic.

But the official calls it prudent planning.

The spokesman says if the units are ordered to active duty, they could be sent to the Gulf region, sent to Europe to replace units there being dispatched to the Mideast or kept in the United States for homeland security duty.

There are currently some 54,000 Reserves and National Guard personnel on active duty.

Mr. Rumsfeld has said the deployment and alert orders going out to military units do not reflect a decision by President Bush to use force against Iraq.

But he said the moves are intended to make clear to Baghdad that it needs to comply with its U.N. obligations.