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U.S. Prepares to Send Some Planes Home

U.S. Prepares to Send Some Planes Home

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WASHINGTON (AP) -- The allied air campaign that tore into Iraq's best defenses and targeted its top leaders is winding down, and U.S. war commanders are preparing to send home some planes.

Vice Adm. Timothy Keating, the commander of all naval forces in the war, said Saturday that two or three of the five U.S. aircraft carriers launching planes on missions over Iraq may head home soon. Each carrier has about 80 planes aboard, including about 50 strike aircraft.

He said the USS Kitty Hawk, which has operated in the Persian Gulf since February, probably would be the first to leave, possibly "in a couple of days." Its home port is Yokosuka, Japan.

The USS Constellation, also in the Gulf and on its final active deployment, probably would go next, he said.

Keating said orders to send carriers and other forces home would have to come from Gen. Tommy Franks, the war's overall commander, and that no such orders have been received.

The first ship to have returned home was the USS Portland, part of an amphibious task force that carried 7,000 Marines to Kuwait in February. The Portland arrived at Little Creek, Va., on Friday.

The Air Force already has sent four B-2 stealth bombers back home to Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., officials said. They were flying missions over Iraq from the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia and from Fairford air base in Britain. Other B-2s flew roundtrip missions from Whiteman.

Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon in a videotelecast news conference from his headquarters in Bahrain, Keating said that as the bombing in Iraq slackens, the Navy will be ready to reduce the number of carriers on duty and give the sailors and air crews time to recuperate.

"We're anxious to get those folks back to their home ports as soon as we can," Keating said.

The third carrier in the Gulf, the USS Nimitz, just arrived as a replacement for the USS Abraham Lincoln, which is en route to its home port of Everett, Wash., after nearly nine months at sea.

The focus of the air campaign changed drastically with the fall of Baghdad and the collapse of Iraqi resistance in the northern cities of Mosul and Kirkuk in recent days. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps planes are still flying combat missions, but they are dropping few bombs.

The total number of air missions on Friday, for example, slipped to 1,525 from the 1,700 or so that had been flown during most days of the war, and the number of attack missions dropped from the usual 550-650 to 375, according to figures released by the air command headquarters.

Attack planes flying from carriers and land bases in and around Iraq are flying in support of allied ground troops, mainly in northern Iraq and over Baghdad. They are expected to continue flying many surveillance and reconnaissance missions throughout the country for some time. But a key target of earlier bombing -- the Republican Guard -- has been eliminated.

In addition to the three aircraft carriers in the Gulf, the Navy has used two in the eastern Mediterranean -- the USS Harry S. Truman and the USS Theodore Roosevelt, both home-ported in Norfolk, Va. Their planes have concentrated mostly on targets in northern Iraq.

Keating noted that the Truman is on a regularly scheduled deployment, whereas the Roosevelt had a shorter-than-usual period at its home before deploying to the Mediterranean in February.

All five carriers have been launching aircraft on missions over Iraq since the war started, and ships and submarines in their battle groups have fired more than 800 cruise missiles.

In contrast to the expected reduction in air forces in the Gulf region, the Army is still sending more ground troops. The 4th Infantry Division, recently arrived in Kuwait, has begun moving into Iraq, and the 1st Cavalry Division from Fort Hood, Texas, is still preparing to deploy, officials said.

The Pentagon reported that the number of Americans killed in the war rose by one Saturday to 108. An Army soldier was the latest casualty, but the Pentagon did not release the name, pending notification of relatives. Ten are listed as missing and seven are prisoners of war.

In the interview from his Bahrain headquarters, Keating said that about 140 American and coalition partner ships are involved in the war, and that they are on guard against terrorist threats.

"We have ongoing intelligence that al-Qaida terrorists are still intent on wreaking mayhem on ships," he said.

Keating also said that Scud missiles, which are a banned weapon in Iraq, have been spotted on the ground by U.S. and British soldiers and Marines. His chief spokesman, Cmdr. Jeff Alderson, said in an interview later that although Keating used the term "Scud" in describing the missiles, he was referring to other surface-to-surface missiles that are similar to Scuds.

Under the cease-fire arrangement that ended the 1991 war, Iraq was required to destroy all of its Scud missiles, which it fired at U.S. troops as well as Israel and Saudi Arabia during that war.

Iraq has declared that it possesses no Scuds, and none has been launched in the current war. U.S. intelligence agencies have estimated that Iraq retained about two dozen Scuds.

Keating said an extensive U.S. leaflet-dropping campaign aimed at discouraging Iraq from firing Scud missiles resulted in "a total lack of Scud launches," adding, "we've seen some on the ground."

He noted that Iraq launched 13 other surface-to-surface missiles during the war, and that in 12 of those cases Navy surveillance aircraft like the P-3 Orion were able to provide early warning to the Army's Patriot anti-missile batteries. That made the Patriots more effective, he said.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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