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WASHINGTON (AP) -- Two U.S. Navy aircraft carriers and the ships in their battle groups will leave the Persian Gulf this week and return to their home ports, a U.S. defense official said Monday.
Their departure reflects a winding down of the air campaign, although the Pentagon is still sending more ground forces to Kuwait and Iraq.
The USS Kitty Hawk will return to its base at Yokosuka, Japan, and the USS Constellation will return to San Diego, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Vice Adm. Timothy Keating, commander of all naval forces participating in the Iraq war -- including two aircraft carriers in the eastern Mediterranean -- had said in an interview Saturday that he hoped the Kitty Hawk and Constellation could leave soon, although he said no orders had been received.
The Kitty Hawk is scheduled to leave first, around the middle of this week, followed shortly by the Constellation, the defense official said.
That will leave only one carrier in the Gulf -- the USS Nimitz, which just arrived to relieve the USS Abraham Lincoln. The Lincoln is headed back to its homeport of Everett, Wash.
Keating said Saturday that either the USS Theodore Roosevelt or the USS Harry S. Truman battle groups -- both in the eastern Mediterranean for air missions over northern Iraq -- may be sent home soon.
Officials said Monday it was not clear whether any decisions had been reached on those carriers.
Each aircraft carrier has about 80 planes aboard, and their F/A-18 and F-14 strike aircraft played a major role in the air war. Surveillance and other support aircraft also fly off the carriers.
The first ship to leave the war zone 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.
After the Kitty Hawk deployed to the Gulf in February, its duties in the Pacific were taken up by the USS Carl Vinson, which remains in the Japan area and may stay even after the Kitty Hawk gets back if the carrier requires significant amounts of maintenance, officials said.
As combat winds down in Iraq, the hunt for chemical and biological weapons or nuclear materials is rising on the priority list for American troops. There are more potential nuclear, biological or chemical weapons sites in Iraq than U.S. military teams to check them, Pentagon officials said Sunday.
U.S. forces have a list of 2,000 to 3,000 sites in Iraq that need to be checked, and weapons teams are checking up to 20 sites a day, said the war's commander, Gen. Tommy Franks. Iraqis ranging from common citizens to high-ranking officials have suggested other possible hiding places to be searched, Franks and other military officials said.
"There are so many sites, we are not able to get to all of them right away," a senior Pentagon official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "It's fair to say there are a lot of places U.S. forces are adding to the list."
Captured Iraqi officials could help add to the list as well. Several top officials of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, including the president's half brother and a former science adviser, are in coalition custody.
The Iraqis are being interrogated about the country's suspected weapons of mass destruction programs, U.S. officials said. They also are being pressed for details on where Saddam is, if he is alive, as well as the whereabouts of other former Iraqi leaders.
The captured Iraqis include Watban Ibrahim Hasan, one of Saddam's three half brothers, who once served as Iraq's interior minister. Hasan was the five spades in the deck of playing cards the U.S. military issued with pictures of wanted Iraqi officials.
Franks said Sunday the United States was holding several high-ranking Iraqi prisoners in western Iraq. Neither he nor Pentagon officials would say how many leading Iraqis have been captured.
One former Iraqi official who could provide major help for the weapons hunt is Lt. Gen. Amer al-Saadi, who surrendered to American forces Saturday. Al-Saadi, the seven of diamonds in the U.S. deck of cards, was Saddam's point man on weapons of mass destruction before the Iraqi government collapsed.
Pentagon officials said they did not know if al-Saadi was sticking to his prewar assertions that Iraq no longer had any chemical or biological weapons. Shortly before leaving his Baghdad villa to surrender Saturday, al-Saadi insisted Iraq has no such weapons.
Also unclear was how helpful Hasan could be. He was dismissed as interior minister, the official in charge of Iraq's domestic security, and was shot by Saddam's son Odai in 1995 amid one of the many family squabbles.
Saddam did not trust Hasan and was having him watched, a U.S. official said. Hasan was captured near Mosul in northern Iraq, apparently as he tried to escape to Syria, the official said.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)