WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon awaited orders yesterday to dispatch ground forces along with additional fighter planes, bombers and combat helicopters to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait as indications mounted that at least a limited military deployment could come as early as this week.
At the White House, an interagency group met through the afternoon to evaluate a range of options to be relayed to President Bush in New York as possible administration recommendations to the United Nations Security Council.
Pentagon sources said that the options included dispatching some combat units, possibly including elements of the 82nd Airborne Division, to provide support and ground security for helicopter escort operations. Those units, in turn, would provide security for airfields, ports and bases that would be used if an outbreak of hostilities required the introduction of heavier forces.
"Saddam didn't bite the bait," said one Pentagon official, referring to last week's warning by Mr. Bush that the United States was prepared to use military force if Iraqi President Saddam Hussein continued to obstruct U.N. arms inspection teams. "And that means we'll now have to prove we mean business or he gets away with it."
With Iraq already ostracized politically and sanctioned economically, U.S. officials said that there were no viable alternatives to military action.
"He's isolated, he's rejected. We can't impose any more harsh economic or political measures against him," an administration official said. The warplanes and helicopters, which were awaiting deployment orders at bases in the United States, would join air and naval forces already in the region to provide military escorts for U.N. inspection missions.
At Fort Bragg, N.C., home of the 82nd Airborne, Army officials said that a "ready brigade," specially trained and equipped for rapid deployment, continued normal operations pending further word of a deployment.
At the same time, officials stressed that a renewed U.S. military deployment was viewed with considerable wariness by the Pentagon and still could be averted.
Even so, many officials in Washington seemed to accept a new military deployment as a virtual fait accompli in response to Iraq's repeated actions to thwart the arms inspection effort, particularly the detention of U.N. personnel for several hours yesterday.
U.S. sources said the administration did not believe that it needed any new authorization from the United Nations to send )) troops or warplanes back to the region. "And, to the best of my knowledge, no one at the United Nations interprets it differently," said a State Department official.
Senior analysts were discussing which European allies might also send warplanes, primarily to give the possible U.S.-directed mission "a multinational flavor," in the words of one official.
In another move designed to increase pressure on Baghdad, the Pentagon said that it was sending additional F-111 and EF-111 warplanes to Turkey, where they will bolster U.S. aircraft already place to protect Iraqi Kurds from attack by Baghdad.
But the Pentagon cautioned that under a U.S. agreement with the Turks the planes are not to be used to escort U.N. inspectors on missions into Iraq.
Knowledgeable Pentagon officials said that the administration was hesitant to send additional forces to Saudi Arabia before an emergency shipment of Patriot missile batteries arrived in the desert kingdom later this week. The Saudis demanded the weapons, designed to shoot down incoming missiles or aircraft, as a condition of allowing U.N. inspections to be staged out of Saudi Arabia.