WASHINGTON -- The Defense Department, acknowledging the possibility of a prolonged war in the Persian Gulf, will seek emergency authority to keep reserve and National Guard units on active duty for up to two years, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney said yesterday.
Such authority, which requires President Bush or Congress to declare a national emergency, also would allow the Pentagon to call as many as 1 million more reservists to active duty. About 1.1 million people belong to the reserves or National Guard.
But Mr. Cheney said, "We have no intention of calling 1 million reservists." The tours of duty for some reservists with "critical skills" are scheduled to end later next month and must be extended, he explained.
His announcement, made at the White House after the meeting between Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz in Geneva, was the latest step taken this week to prepare for a possible war against Iraq.
Earlier yesterday, President Bush issued an executive order that would force U.S. manufacturers to give the military government priority for supplies of food, energy, transportation and other essentials.
"We need to have industry produce defense materials on a priority basis," and give Pentagon contractors first call on parts and raw materials, said a senior defense official involved in preparing the order. The order was needed after the Defense Production Act of 1950 lapsed in October, when Congress failed to enact new legislation, he said.
In Saudi Arabia, vaccinations of U.S. troops against potential Iraqi germ warfare agents began, the pace of training exercises accelerated and
some unit commanders began ordering combat troops to pack up personal effects and non-combat gear to lighten their loads, officials said.
"They're saying that anything you can't carry, you might want to send home," said Lt. Col. Stuart Wagner, a Pentagon spokesman. "It's a prudent measure because you want to be mobile" on the battlefield.
Meanwhile, combat reinforcements, weapons and equipment continued to pour into Saudi Arabia, with elements of the U.S. Army's 1st and 3rd Armored Divisions beginning to arrive from Germany.
Pentagon officials also said they were anticipating the need to evacuate U.S. civilians from potential war zones, including 20,000 to 30,000 Americans in Saudi Arabia, many of whom work in the oil industry.
Last Saturday, Marine helicopters and two Navy ships assigned to the gulf were diverted to civil-war-torn Somalia, where 260 people, including 66 Americans, were evacuated.
Referring to the call-up of reserve and National Guard personnel, Mr. Cheney said, "What we currently have in the works is a provision . . . that will allow us to keep reservists on active service for as long as two years."
Mr. Bush already has given Mr. Cheney the authority to activate up to 188,000 military reservists, although federal law allows as many as 200,000 to be called without a declaration of a national emergency. So far, about 151,000 National Guard and reserve troops have been summoned for the gulf, although not all have been sent to the gulf.
Other officials said Mr. Cheney's mention of "critical skills" that needed to be retained in the gulf referred largely to medical, intelligence and logistics personnel, most of whom are reservists.
The tours of duty for about 21,000 reservists -- all of whom serve in combat support or service roles -- will reach their legal 180-day limit next month, Pentagon officials said. By law, their activation cannot be extended unless Mr. Cheney can obtain the expanded authority he mentioned yesterday, known as a "partial mobilization" for war, officials said.
For reservists trained for combat assignments, Congress agreed in October to give the Pentagon the authority to keep them on active duty for up to 360 days. Some actual fighting units were activated in November, but Mr. Cheney has not yet decided whether to send them to Saudi Arabia.