WASHINGTON -- The U.S. military has abandoned plans to rotate U.S. troops serving in the desert of Saudi Arabia, which means that the 240,000 currently deployed there can expect to stay until the Persian Gulf crisis is over, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney said yesterday.
President Bush's decision to build up the gulf force by more than 200,000 troops brought an end to
tentative Pentagon plans to start rotating units out after six months, beginning about the first of the year.
"The new deployment that we've begun yesterday should be thought of as a net addition to the forces that are already in the theater," Mr. Cheney said. "They are not going there as replacements, but rather to be added to the forces that are already present."
A senior military official put it more bluntly: "Nobody's coming out."
"Our rotation plan has just become a reinforcement plan," said Lt. Col. Fred Peck, a Marine Corps spokesman. "We don't have much of a base left with better than 60 percent, perhaps two-thirds, of the operating forces now committed to Operation Desert Shield. There's not much left to rotate."
The new policy could be a blow to the morale of U.S. troops, who have complained of harsh conditions in the Middle East and have looked forward to announcement of a timetable for bringing them home, if only temporarily.
At the same time, the massive buildup also suggests that these troops may not have to wait indefinitely for the conclusion of the crisis.
With the size of Operation Desert Shield approaching the maximum troop deployment of the Vietnam War two decades ago, "you're effectively putting a time limit on the operation," said Lawrence J. Korb, a former senior Pentagon official.
The administration has insisted that it will wait long enough to see whether worldwide economic sanctions can pressure Iraqi President Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait before launching a possible military offensive to dislodge him.
But with a major share of U.S. combat resources now committed to the region, Mr. Korb said, "your ability to out-wait Saddam and let the sanctions work is limited. You can't sit there with 300,000 people out there forever."
As more details of the buildup were disclosed yesterday, Air Force officials indicated that additional B-52 bombers would be sent to the theater.
Before U.S. ground troops moved against the deeply entrenched Iraqi forces, waves of B-52s would carpet-bomb the enemy fortifications, Air Force officials said.
Mr. Korb noted that dedicating such a large share of U.S. combat strength to a single region would leave vulnerabilities in other parts of the world.
"Basically, you've thrown all your eggs in one basket," he said.