First Major U.S.-Saudi Exercise Shrouded In Secrecy With PM-Gulf Rdp, Bjt
IN EASTERN SAUDI ARABIA (AP) _ The first major U.S.-Saudi Arabian military exercise, with the ominous name ″Imminent Thunder,″ began its second day today shrouded in secrecy.
By military standards the six-day exercise, including a mock amphibious invasion, is relatively small. But its name and the sudden announcement that it was already under way heightened its importance at a time of uncertainty in the Persian Gulf.
Before the exercise started, Iraq on Wednesday denounced it as ″a clear act of provocation″ close to the Iraqi border that demonstrated ″America’s aggressive intentions.″
The name Imminent Thunder raised speculation about whether a real military operation was imminent. This was reinforced by the recent prediction in a French magazine that an offensive would be launched on Nov. 17, the first moonless night after the U.S. elections.
U.S. Navy spokesman Cmdr. J.D. Van Sickle said the exercise was not intended to provoke the Iraqis and insisted the name had no particular significance.
″The purpose is to give participating forces training in joint and combined operations and to enhance amphibious warfare skills,″ he said. ″Exercise Imminent Thunder is part of our Desert Shield training.″
Pentagon Spokesman Pete Williams said Thursday the main amphibious landing exercise was being held about 100 miles south of the Kuwaiti border. He also said that as part of Imminent Thunder a smaller group of Marines was conducting a training exercise about 25 miles south of the emirate’s frontier.
Approximately 1,000 U.S. Marines, 1,100 aircraft and 16 ships, including the aircraft carrier USS Midway which arrived in the region earlier this month, are participating in the exercise along with an unspecified number of Saudi forces.
Training will consist of the amphibious landing, expected Sunday, with air cover and close air and naval support of ground forces. No live ammunition is to be fired.
The exercise began under a news blackout but the military said pool media coverage was being planned for the weekend.
The participants represent about 1 percent of the 230,000 Americans and 100,000 servicemen from 25 other countries deployed in the gulf following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait on Aug. 2.
Nonetheless, it is the largest use of aircraft in a single training exercise in Operation Desert Shield. It is also the first mock amphibious assault in Saudi Arabia following three previous exercises in neighboring Oman and Bahrain.
If Desert Shield is to be effective, either defensively or offensively, its numerous Arab and Western military contingents must be coordinated effectively.
Only two weeks ago, Secretary of State James A. Baker III and King Fahd of Saudi Arabia agreed on command and control of all troops.
Inside the kingdom, there is now joint U.S.-Saudi command. Outside the kingdom, the United States will command its own forces but it must receive the king’s permission to launch an attack from Saudi soil.
President Bush has said he wants to wait for U.N. trade sanctions against Iraq to force Baghdad out of Kuwait but he has also voiced impatience with President Saddam Hussein’s intransigence.
Bush, who will visit troops on Thanksgiving Day, recently doubled the number of U.S. aircraft carriers in the gulf region to six. He is also sending 200,000 additional military personnel to give Desert Shield an offensive capability.
Earlier this week, British Defense Secretary Tom King and Abdullah Bishara, secretary general of the Gulf Cooperation Council, also warned Iraq there was a limit to the patience of the allied forces.
The exercise includes units of the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and 1,000 members of the 4th Marine Expeditionary Battalion as well as the Royal Saudi Air Force, and naval and marine units.
Staff Sgt. Maceo Wylie, 42, of Columbia, S.C., with the Army’s 528th Medical (Psychological) Detachment, said it was important for the allies to train together ″because that’s the only time you know who you can rely on in combat.″
But Army 1st Sgt. Mickey Kershaw, 37, of West Islip, N.Y., said the exercise was ″a waste of time.″ He said it would be far better to attack Saddam now ″than do it five years from now when this guy nukes me and the family I might have.″