WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration has decided to expand the number of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf and may send as many as 100,000 more troops to the region, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney said yesterday.
The United States has already sent more than 210,000 troops to the gulf as part of a planned deployment of about 240,000 troops.
In announcing that more forces would be sent, Mr. Cheney said that the exact number had not yet been worked out, and he gave no date for completing the U.S. military buildup in the region, the largest since the Vietnam War.
Mr. Cheney said that some of the additional forces might come from the 50,000 U.S. troops being withdrawn from Western Europe.
Officially, the administration maintained that the move did not signal a change in policy. But by announcing that it was sending more combat forces and that the complement might be substantial, the Pentagon appeared to be trying to add to pressure on Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait and accept a peaceful settlement on United Nations and U.S. terms.
The additional deployment of large numbers of troops would also transform the U.S. ground force in Saudi Arabia from a largely defensive military to one better suited for offensive action.
Some military planners, including Army officials, have been saying for weeks that the United States should deploy two additional heavy divisions if it wanted to open an attack to evict Iraqi troops from Kuwait, which Iraq invaded on Aug. 2.
Mr. Cheney, who met Wednesday with President Bush, disclosed the decision to send more combat troops in interviews with four television networks, and his spokesman reaffirmed the decision at the regular Pentagon briefing for reporters.
Mr. Cheney said that the United States had never set an "upper ceiling" on the number of troops that would be sent and added that the Pentagon had not formally decided precisely which additional units to send.
Asked on the CBS News program "This Morning" whether the administration might send 100,000 more troops to the Persian Gulf, Mr. Cheney said, "It's conceivable that we'll end up with that big an increase."
Pete Williams, the chief Pentagon spokesman, reaffirmed that statement at the Pentagon's regular news briefing for reporters yesterday, saying that a deployment of that magnitude was possible.
The units to be sent will be selected after Mr. Cheney confers with Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who met with military commanders in Saudi Arabia this week.
Officials said additional units would augment the troop total in the region and would not end up simply substituting for U.S. forces recalled home as part of a troop rotation.
The Pentagon's original plan, decided in August, called for sending about 240,000 troops, a force that includes 4 1/2 Army divisions and 45,000 Marines, 11,000 of whom are on ships for a possible amphibious landing.
That deployment is nearing completion, and the Pentagon has said that more than 210,000 U.S. troops are already in the region, a total that includes Navy and Air Force personnel.
The last Army combat unit that was previously scheduled for deployment, the last elements of the 1st Cavalry Division, arrived in Saudi Arabia this week, and only support troops and logistical items remained to be sent until yesterday's announcement.
Iraq has had about 430,000 troops in Kuwait and southern Iraq for more than a month. Administration officials have said that the Iraqis have been strengthening their position by laying mines, building sand barriers and digging in their tanks, a development Mr. Cheney suggested has encouraged the Pentagon to send more troops.
Mr. Cheney said the United States needed to have enough forces in the gulf "to deal with any contingency."
Mr. Cheney, reiterating administration policy, said that U.S. forces were sent to Saudi Arabia to deter Iraq from invading Saudi Arabia, to prepare to defend the Saudi kingdom in the event of an attack and to enforce U.N. sanctions against Iraq.
But he added that the deployment of U.S. forces was also intended "to give the president a range of other options should another option be necessary," apparently a reference to possible offensive action to drive the Iraqi forces out of Kuwait.
"The fact is that Saddam Hussein has continued his buildup in Kuwait," Mr. Cheney said on the CBS program.
There are a number of ways to build up the U.S. force in the region. Mr. Cheney suggested that the Pentagon would replace the lightly equipped 82nd Airborne, which was deployed early in the operation, with a heavier mechanized division, a move long advocated by military planners.