WASHINGTON - Signaling impatience with the Turkish government, the Pentagon on Friday began moving warships out of the Mediterranean into the Red Sea, where they could launch long-range cruise missiles on a path to Iraq that would not go over Turkey, officials said.
Of the approximately one dozen ships to be shifted, a first group of five transited the Suez Canal on Friday, harbor officials at Egypt's Port Said told The Associated Press. They identified the ships as the guided missile destroyer USS Arleigh Burke of the Theodore Roosevelt battle group and the destroyer USS Deyo of the Harry S. Truman battle group.
Three submarines from the battle groups also traveled through the canal - the USS Boise, USS Toledo and USS San Juan, the officials said.
The rest of the ships were to follow soon, Pentagon officials said.
In a related development, Gen. Tommy Franks, the commander who would lead any U.S. invasion of Iraq, left his Qatar command post Friday to meet with officials in the United Arab Emirates. There was no official word on when he would return to Qatar.
Also, the Air Force announced at the Pentagon that it will implement a rarely used authority to prevent a wide range of active duty and reserve officers and enlisted members from leaving the Air Force. The move reflects a growing strain on the Air Force as it prepares for war.
Air Force spokeswoman Jennifer Stephens said the order, which takes effect May 2, could affect as many as 21,000 people, ranging in rank from airman to colonel. The Army and Marine Corps have similar orders in effect, but the Navy does not.
The Truman and Roosevelt aircraft carriers are remaining in the eastern Mediterranean, at least for now, officials said. They have been operating there for weeks in anticipation of war against Iraq. Each carrier has about 80 aircraft aboard, including F/A-18 attack planes.
The shift of Tomahawk-shooting ships could be the first step in a larger redeployment of ground and naval firepower away from Turkey, which so far has refused to grant overflight rights for U.S. naval aircraft and cruise missiles like the low-flying Tomahawk.
The Pentagon had hoped to base a 60,000-strong U.S. Army force as well as additional Air Force warplanes in Turkey for use in an Iraq war, but Turkey has not approved those, either. About 50 American and British planes at Incirlik air base in south-central Turkey enforce a no-fly zone over northern Iraq, but it is not clear that the Turkish government would allow them to fly offensive missions against Iraq.
From the Red Sea, the Navy cruisers, destroyers and submarines would be able to launch their Tomahawks for flights over Saudi Arabia to targets inside Iraq.
Tomahawks are satellite-guided missiles normally used in the opening stages of war to strike high-value, fixed targets such as government buildings in areas where the risk of civilian casualties is relatively high.
The Tomahawks are 18 feet long and are designed to evade radar by skimming the land or sea surface. They carry 1,000-pound warheads. Following the Gulf War, they became one of the weapons of choice to respond to Iraqi breaches of U.N. sanctions.
The issue of overflight rights for U.S. missiles and planes has been overshadowed by the Bush administration's struggle to win Turkey's approval to base 60,000 or more U.S. troops there to open a northern front against Iraq.
The Turkish parliament rejected the U.S. request for basing rights earlier this month, and Pentagon officials said Thursday it appeared increasingly unlikely that the Army would position its 4th Infantry Division in Turkey, as originally planned.
About three dozen cargo ships with the 4th Infantry Division's weaponry, equipment and supplies have been waiting off the Turkish coast for weeks, and the troops are still at their base in Fort Hood, Texas.
During the 1991 Gulf War the Navy positioned carriers and Tomahawk-launching ships in the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. It now has three carriers in the Gulf - the USS Kitty Hawk, the USS Constellation and the USS Abraham Lincoln. Those carrier battle groups include about 20 Tomahawk-firing ships and submarines.