DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia -- U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia have been inching north toward Iraqi lines in Kuwait, occupying desert initially left vacant as a shock absorber against Iraqi attacks, military officers say.
The officers say that the northward creep is meant only to "thicken" front-line positions and that it does not signal imminent war.
"Our mission is still defensive, and what you see in my sector is just a maturing of our defense," Lt. Gen. Walter Boomer, commander of all Marines in the Saudi desert, said when asked about his units' shifts to the north.
But other officers acknowledged that the movements would make it easier to "wheel around" and turn defensive positions into an offensive deployment quickly, should President Bush order an attack on Kuwait.
"We're working on being capable of shifting from one posture to another within hours, from dug in to moving out," said one officer of the Army's 3rd Armored Cavalry Division.
The northernmost U.S. outpost is now 20 miles from the Kuwait border, compared to 35 miles six weeks ago, one Army officer said. Some Marine units have moved up six miles and now stand 50 miles from the border.
The first U.S. troops deployed to Saudi Arabia, in early August, were light, air-transported units that were heavily outnumbered and outgunned. They stayed 60 miles south of the border to give themselves a defensive cushion in case of an Iraqi attack.
U.S. military regulations forbid the publication of exact unit locations or strengths.
But a highway that once marked the northernmost limit of the U.S. deployment is now flanked on both sides by Army and Marine Corps camps, bumps of tan and brown camouflaged tents barely rising above the desert flatness.