- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 28, 2002

From combined dispatches

The Pentagon has ordered the Navy to prepare two aircraft carriers and two amphibious assault vessels for possible action in Iraq, defense officials said yesterday, as U.N. arms experts interviewed a key Iraqi scientist in Baghdad and inspected three suspect sites.

The Pentagon's orders, sent in the last two days, require the Navy to have the vessels ready to sail to the seas around Iraq within 96 hours after a certain date, the officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. They declined to specify that date.

The ships and the escorts would bring a powerful military force to the region, adding several warships, scores of strike aircraft and roughly 4,400 Marines to the forces already within striking distance of Iraq.

In Baghdad, U.N. spokesman Hiro Ueki said inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Iraq had interviewed a metallurgist from a high-profile state company, but the scientist, Kathim Jamil, denied any links to Iraq's nuclear program.

"He provided technical details of a military program," Mr. Ueki said in a statement. "This program has attracted considerable attention as a possible prelude to a clandestine nuclear program."

Mr. Ueki said the scientist's answers "will be of great use in completing the IAEA assessment" of Iraq's nuclear program.

The Iraqi Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Mr. Jamil was a specialist in the use of aluminum tubes used to produce 81-mm missiles with a range of six miles. An Iraqi monitoring official attended the interview that lasted one hour.

The United States and Britain have raised the alarm in recent months over suspected attempts by Iraq to buy aluminum tubes that could be used to process uranium. Iraq denied the charges and said it had had the tubes since the 1980s.

Inspectors from the IAEA and a U.N. mission toured the Modern Co. for Brewery and other sites yesterday as the mission to scour Iraq for traces of nuclear, biological or chemical weapons entered its second month.

The 100-plus inspectors whose predecessors left the country in 1998 after Baghdad halted cooperation are due to issue their next report on January 9 and a final one on January 27, and speculation is growing that this could spark war.

A U.N. Security Council resolution last month gave Iraq a last chance to come clean on its weapons programs, as required by resolutions dating back to the 1991 Gulf war or face the consequences, which is diplomatic-speak for possible war.

If the Pentagon gives the order to sail, the USS George Washington battle group would be sent from the Atlantic fleet, officials said. The George Washington returned to its base in Norfolk from the region on Dec. 20 and is considered best prepared for action.

Either the USS Abraham Lincoln or the USS Kitty Hawk battle group would be sent from the Pacific fleet. The Abraham Lincoln is in Perth, Australia, having just left the Persian Gulf region. The Kitty Hawk is in port in Japan.

An aircraft carrier battle group includes six to eight surface ships, including cruisers, destroyers, frigates and other vessels, and about 7,500 sailors. An amphibious-ready group has about 2,200 Marines.

The defense officials declined to say which amphibious assault groups are most likely to be sent to conduct operations in Iraq. Those groups center on a large, carrierlike vessel that can launch helicopters and carry Marines.

Already in the region is the carrier USS Constellation and the amphibious assault ship USS Nassau, and their escorts, officials said. The Nassau group carries another 2,200 Marines.

A fourth carrier group, centered on the USS Harry S. Truman, is in the Mediterranean Sea.

In addition, the U.S. Navy hospital ship Comfort is expected to put to sea from its home port in Baltimore next week and prepare for action, military officials said yesterday. It will be headed to Diego Garcia, a British island in the Indian Ocean, where the United States bases numerous military aircraft, to support any potential conflict with Iraq.

The 1,000-bed floating hospital will initially sail with a crew of 61 civilian mariners and 225 Navy personnel, including enough doctors to support two operating rooms, said Marge Holtz, spokeswoman for the Navy's Military Sealift Command. Hundreds more will be flown to the ship as needed, she said.

The white-painted vessel, marked with red crosses, is equipped to handle combat casualties, including those injured in chemical- or biological-weapons attacks, Miss Holtz said.

It may leave as early as Monday, Miss Holtz said.

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