A warship convoy including two U.S. aircraft carriers has orders to set sail Friday for the Persian Gulf less than three weeks before a U.N. deadline for Iraq to leave Kuwait or face possible war.
Also, the Pentagon was reported to be planning inoculations for troops against germ warfare, and senior U.S. officials were quoted as saying President Bush favors a quick, short war that could save American lives.About 16,000 sailors and Marines were to leave East Coast ports Friday for the gulf aboard 17 ships, including the aircraft carriers America and Theodore Roosevelt from the Norfolk Naval Base in Virginia.
Navy officials said it should be a two-week voyage, putting the ships' arrival in time for the U.N. deadline. Three U.S. carriers - the Kennedy, Saratoga and Ranger - already are in the gulf.
More than 400,000 U.S. troops are expected to be deployed in the gulf by mid-February. Iraq, which invaded Kuwait Aug. 2, reportedly has more than 500,000 troops in Iraq and southern Kuwait.
The New York Times reported Friday that inoculations of soldiers against biological weapons could begin "within a matter of weeks."
Army Lt. Col. Steve Roy, a spokesman for the Defense Department, declined to comment about the report.
Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has repeatedly denied having biological weapons, based on viruses and bacteria that can spread diseases such as typhoid and cholera. Iraq has used chemical weapons against its Kurdish population and against Iran.
Lt. Gen. Calvin Waller said last week that he did not believe the United States was prepared for a full attack on Jan. 15, and recent media reports said Bush was told that Waller's assessment has wide support among officers in the gulf.
But Bush said Thursday: "Don't believe those reports you're reading" and noted he was "comfortable" with the firepower on hand.
He also said there has been "no progress" on settling a disagreement over dates for a proposed meeting between Saddam and Secretary of State James Baker.
Should negotiations fail before the Jan. 15 U.N. deadline, Bush favors a quick attack, according to senior government officials quoted in Friday's Los Angeles Times.
The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Bush believes a prompt strike will reduce American casualties.
"He's thought about that, and he's comfortable with the decision," one official said. "He said he's prepared to take whatever the consequences may be, including if it's an unpopular war and makes him a one-term president."
Twenty Iraqi diplomats who met with Saddam on Wednesday were heading back to their overseas posts. The officials, which include envoys to the United States, United Nations and Soviet Union, are "ready for a serious and constructive dialogue based on mutual respect," according to the official Iraqi News Agency, monitored in Nicosia, Cyprus.
But Iraq denied reports that Saddam was seeking a new peace initiative.
Saddam met Thursday with Soviet Deputy Premier Igor Belousov, but details of the talks were not released.
In Moscow, the 2,250-member Congress of People's Deputies on Thursday approved a resolution supporting the U.N. resolution on use of force, Tass reported.