IN SAUDI ARABIA -- One of the most senior U.S. military commanders here told his troops yesterday that it now is possible they will launch an offensive against Iraq in the months ahead.
The statement, by Maj. Gen. Robert M. Johnston of the Marines, a leading member of the U.S. command in Saudi Arabia, was repeated by other senior officers yesterday as they reacted to President Bush's decision to send at least 150,000 reinforcements to Saudi Arabia "to provide an adequate offensive military option" if economic sanctions against Iraq are deemed insufficient.
It appeared to be the first explicit acknowledgment by a U.S. officer that the former limited goal of defending Saudi Arabia was giving way to a new imperative to prepare a possible attack. Since they first arrived here in August, U.S. commanders have denied making any offensive preparations.
Speaking on the 215th anniversary of the founding of the Marine Corps, General Johnston said the president's decision to send additional units, and not to permit any rotation of the 230,000 U.S. military personnel already here, meant that now "we may indeed have to concern ourselves with an offensive option" against Iraq.
Addressing the assembled ranks of the 1st Marine Division headquarters battalion, he warned his troops that they faced "a whole new ballgame" and that a war in this region could be more difficult than the war in Vietnam.
"The prospect of offensive combat is going to be the greatest challenge that Marines have seen in many decades," General Johnston said. "We are going to need everything we have if we go to war against the Iraqis."
Under military rules, the precise numbers and locations of U.S. units cannot be reported. But the Marine forces visited yesterday are among the most forward-deployed combat units in the Saudi desert.
[The Los Angeles Times, meanwhile, quoted a senior Bush administration official yesterday as saying that the White House was determined to end the stalemate in the gulf quickly.
[An ultimatum to Iraq's Saddam Hussein could be the "next step," said the official, who the paper said has been involved in every facet of Mr. Bush's plans for the gulf operation.
[While some officials had suggested that war was likely, others in the administration and in allied governments had stressed the possibility of an extended stalemate -- one lasting well into next year and perhaps longer -- during which the United States and its allies would wait to see if economic pressure would force Mr. Hussein to yield.
[The decision to add massive new U.S. forces to the gulf marks a rejection of the latter strategy. The administration, officials made clear, was now set inexorably on a path that would lead to war unless Mr. Hussein backed out, according to the Los Angeles Times.]
General Johnston and other senior officers said they had not yet fully informed U.S. troops here of the decision not to permit any units to rotate home as reinforcements came in.
"We just got the message last night," said another Marine commander, Brig. Gen. Mike Myatt. "I think it's going to have a sobering impact."
When asked their reaction to the decision to send reinforcements without rotating soldiers home, several Marines seemed surprised but also relieved at what they interpreted as a stiffening of resolve.
"That tells us one thing," said Cpl. James M. Capps of the 3rd Marine Regiment at a base far out in the desert. "If they say it's an offensive, we're ready to go."
It was an acceptance of battle echoed by several Marines who said they would rather fight than sit in the sands indefinitely.
"We know a war is a war," said Sgt. Frank Huerta, 28. "Some of us won't make it back. But we say, 'Let's do it so the rest of us can get home.' "
As he spoke, a combined British and U.S. military band was playing "The Marine Hymn" while officers used a combat knife to cut a birthday cake emblazoned in red letters spelling out former Marine battlefields: "Wake, Tarawa, Iwo Jima, Vietnam."
Each Marine ate a piece of a similar cake in a ceremony repeated across the desert yesterday among more than 40,000 men sent here with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.
General Johnston, a 30-year veteran, told the Marines that the 1st Expeditionary Force would be "the pointed end" of any offensive against Iraq.
When asked what he thought their reaction would be to the policy of not rotating them home, he said: "I'm sure it's not going to thrill a lot of people, but we're mature enough to carry out the mission."
The Marines were among the first units to go into the Saudi desert inAugust. Most have been here for three months.
Mood matters in war, where the battle in men's minds and hearts is as important as the weapons they wield. By that measure, there appears to be a marked change from two months ago in the Marines met yesterday at several bases across the desert.