WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon will dispatch two additional heavy Army divisions to Saudi Arabia in a move that signals a fundamental shift to an offensive military posture in the tense Persian Gulf, Bush administration officials said last night.
The divisions will be transferred from Europe and will add as many as 100,000 troops and 700 advanced M-1A1 tanks to the 238,000 U.S. troops and 1,300 tanks already deployed to the region as part of Operation Desert Shield, officials said.
The decision to send the additional troops and tanks indicates that the United States is moving into "a new phase" in the three-month military operation, a senior Defense Department official said. The additional forces "mark a shift toward a more offensive makeup" of the large U.S. deployment in Saudi Arabia and surrounding countries, the official said.
The force now in place is considered adequate to defend Saudi Arabia and smaller Persian Gulf states against a possible Iraqi attack. But U.S. military commanders in Saudi Arabia have advised the Pentagon and White House that they will need at least two more heavy armored divisions to have the punch required to mount an assault on the entrenched Iraqi force in Kuwait.
Officials said that when the new troops are in place, the United States will have 350,000 troops in the region, armed with an array of high-powered weaponry ranging from heavy B-52 bombers to guided-missile cruisers.
The U.S. forces face 430,000 Iraqi troops that are armed with an estimated 3,500 tanks, 2,200 armored personnel carriers and 2,200 artillery pieces and that are dug into heavily fortified positions in Kuwait and southern Iraq.
Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, who is expected to announce the new deployments as early as today, has not ruled out sending even more U.S. forces to the region, aides said.
Disclosure of the new buildup has been delayed for several days while Secretary of State James A. Baker III consults with leaders of Saudi Arabia and other allied nations about the Middle East situation.
Mr. Baker is in the Soviet Union to discuss U.S. plans in the Persian Gulf with Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze and President Mikhail S. Gorbachev. The Soviet leaders have advised against a U.S.-led attack, advocating instead a diplomatic solution to the crisis.
But President Bush has pointedly refused to rule out an offensive military operation. And senior administration officials have said U.S. forces will not necessarily wait for provocation before launching a strike.