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WASHINGTON, D.C. – In one more major sign of preparations for a possible war against Iraq, the Navy has activated one of its two 1,000-bed hospital ships, the Comfort, to be sent for possible duty in the Persian Gulf, Navy officials said today. The Baltimore-based ship will initially be staffed with 225 military medical technicians, laboratory workers, other support personnel and 61 civilian seamen, officials said. But the medical staff would expand to 1,200 in wartime.

Here in Washington, officials also confirmed today that the Pentagon had issued a directive ordering the Navy to keep two aircraft carriers and two Marine amphibious assault groups ready to be sent to the Persian Gulf on 96-hour notice. The Comfort will leave in the next few days for the Indian Ocean base at Diego Garcia, Navy officials said. The Comfort, a converted supertanker, was sent to the Persian Gulf during the war in 1991 and was sent after the September 11 attacks last year to New York City, for use as a logistics and rest station.

"Its primary mission is to provide flexible medical response to support wartime operations," Marge Holtz, a spokeswoman for the Military Sealift Command, said today. Activating the Comfort signals that the Bush administration is preparing for large numbers of American casualties, and is ready to take the risk to back up its threat to use military force to disarm Iraq. The Comfort has 12 operating rooms and is equipped to deal with major trauma cases and casualties from chemical and biological weapons.

"Hospital ships make a profound political statement," said Vice Admiral Michael L. Cowan, the Navy's surgeon general. "It's a national statement that we're serious about this mission." The hospital ship's assignment is one of a number of signs of a buildup, including the new Pentagon order to prepare additional aircraft carriers for gulf duty, coming exercises to test long-range B-2 bombers and the military's command and control procedures, and the announcement of a new deputy for military operations in the gulf.

About 50,000 American reinforcements, mainly logistics specialists like port handlers and crane operators, are beginning to flow into the region, and will roughly double the American force there. Additional Air Force fighters, bombers and cargo planes are expected to be sent to gulf next month, as well.

The Pentagon's directive on the aircraft carriers and Marine amphibious assault groups formalized a practice the Navy had in place for several months to keep one of each on both the East and West coasts ready to move on short notice. The alert order allows the Pentagon to quickly send back a carrier that has returned from the gulf, like the George Washington, in Norfolk, Virginia.

Or it could accelerate the scheduled assignment of another carrier to meet the requirement. The Theodore Roosevelt, for instance, is not due to leave Norfolk for the Mediterranean until spring, but a Navy official said it could be sent as soon as February, if needed.

In the Pacific, the alert order has an immediate effect on the carrier Kitty Hawk, which is based in Japan, and the Abraham Lincoln, which is on port leave in Perth, Australia, en route to its home port in San Diego. As the Navy readies its armada, the Air Force is preparing exercises to test the ability of B-2, B-1 and B-52 bombers to conduct operations from bases in Diego Garcia and England.

The Air Force is planning to station B-2's overseas for the first time, but General John P. Jumper, the United States Air Force Chief of Staff, wants to ensure that the plane's special radar-evading skin can be properly maintained at bases abroad. "We have a series of exercises planned before I'm ready to agree to a concept of operations with B-2's forward deployed," General Jumper said in an recent interview.

The Central Command recently completed a weeklong exercise to test the command-and-control arrangements among the various military headquarters in the gulf region and in the United States. A senior military official said today that General Tommy R. Franks, the commander of American forces in the gulf, might conduct a follow-up exercise in late January or early February to see if the kinks identified in the first drill have been worked out.

General Franks is getting new help for any war against Iraq. Lieutenant General John P. Abizaid of the Army, whose ancestors immigrated to the United States from Lebanon, has been named a Deputy Commander of United States forces in the Middle East, military officials said today.

The Central Command, based in Tampa, Fla., will now have two deputies. The current deputy, Lieutenant General Michael P. DeLong of the Marine Corps, will stay in Tampa, a military official said, to keep a special focus on military activities in Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa. Given the time difference of eight to nine hours between here and the gulf, General DeLong could also deal with officials in Washington late in the day.

General Abizaid, who speaks Arabic, German and Italian, would be based at the command's headquarters in Qatar in any war with Iraq, and focus on gulf and Middle East operations. He commanded a battalion during the military's relief operation in northern Iraq after the 1991 gulf war. General Abizaid is now Director of the Joint Staff at the Pentagon, and previously commanded the First Infantry Division in Kosovo. He is also a former Commandant of Cadets of the United States Military Academy at West Point and served in combat in Grenada.

Special to – 28 December 2002