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Mon, Apr 14, 2003

US Begins To Pull Warplanes Out Of Iraq

The Fat Lady Hasn't Started Singing, But She's Tuning Up

Now that the major ground battles appear over in Iraq and the focus seems to be shifting toward stabilizing the country and providing much-needed humanitarian assistance, American forces are beginning to withdraw their warplanes from the theater. While the air campaign is far from over, its focus is shifting away from heavy bombing toward protective air cover for ground troops around Baghdad and in northern Iraq.

U-2 surveillance and reconnaissance missions, unmanned Predator drones and other aircraft are continuing, and aerial refueling aircraft are still very busy. Cargo aircraft, vital to humanitarian missions in Iraq, are just beginning to arrive at places like the newly-renamed Baghdad International Airport (formerly Saddam International) and the al-Rashid Air Base on the east side of the Iraqi capitol.

Heading Home, Job Well-Done

Vice Adm. Timothy Keating, commander of all naval forces in the Iraq war, said over the weekend that two or three of the five American aircraft carriers in or near the Persian Gulf Iraq may soon head home. Each of the massive carriers has about 80 planes on board, including approximately 50 strike aircraft. He said the USS Kitty Hawk, which has operated in the Gulf since February, would likely be the first to leave, perhaps as soon as "in a couple of days." The Kitty Hawk is based at Yokosuka, Japan.

The USS Constellation, also in the Gulf and on its final deployment, could well be the next to go, he said. Keating said orders to send carriers and other forces home would have to come from Gen. Tommy Franks, the war's overall commander. So far, no such orders have been received.

B-2s Going Home As Well

The Air Force already has sent four B-2 stealth bombers back home to Whiteman Air Force Base (MO), officials said. They were based at Diego Garcia and Fairford Air Base in Great Britain. Other B-2s flew roundtrip missions to Iraq from Whiteman.

Keating said, as the bombing in Iraq slackens, the Navy will be ready to reduce the number of carriers on duty and give sailors and air crews time for a little R&R. "We're anxious to get those folks back to their home ports as soon as we can."

In addition to the three aircraft carriers in the Gulf, the Navy has used two in the eastern Mediterranean - the USS Harry S. Truman and the USS Theodore Roosevelt, both based in Norfolk (VA). Warplanes from those ships have primarily concentrated on targets in northern Iraq. Keating said either the Truman or the Roosevelt likely would be sent home soon, but he didn't say which it would be. Still, Keating noted that the Truman is on a regularly scheduled deployment, whereas the Roosevelt had a shorter-than-usual turn-around at its home before being sent to the Mediterranean back in February.

FMI: www.centcom.mil

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