Allies to make base on Afghan territory

Military build-up
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An Anglo-American operation against Afghanistan is imminent, but fierce debate is raging in Washington and around the world about how much further the "War against Terrorism" can or will go.

There are already enough US forces in the region to mount a strike on bases linked to the Al-Qa'edah organisation, which the US believes is behind the attacks on New York and Washington. But the military build-up is still gathering force, indicating the US plans a wider action.

"We're preparing for what could very well be a wide range of options. So you will see a lot of people moving; you'll see a lot of equipment moving,'' Pentagon spokes- woman Victoria Clarke told US media.

President George W Bush met with his security advisers on Friday and was expected to finalise plans for the assault with them yesterday. "There was 'broad agreement' that the first assaults had to be narrowly focused on the terrorists believed responsible for the attacks," the New York Times reported yesterday, and that means Afghanistan. Two US carrier battle groups are in the region, and there are US aircraft in the Gulf and on the British base on Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. US and British special forces are already believed to be operating in Afghanistan.

British preparations for war are being made under the codename Operation Veritas, the Latin for truth. But a Ministry of Defence (MoD) spokesman said announcing a name for the operation "does not mean that there is any assumption that the UK will take military action".

The armed services have simply been "conducting some contingency planning work" under that name, he said. The announcement was made on Friday night to avoid the news leaking out and causing "unnecessary excitement". The spokesman added: "The name has no significance. It is simply drawn from a random list."

The operation against Al- Qa'edah is expected to begin with large-scale air assault, followed by the establishment of a secure but temporary base in Afghanistan. It is likely that it would be carried out by US aircraft and ships, followed by US and British special forces, perhaps with French support. The decision to make the initial operation a primarily Anglo- American one reflects a desire to keep command arrangements simple, as well as a desire to minimise the political problems that direct military involvement would cause other US allies. But the steady increase in US forces in the region indicates that it plans for a much larger, and potentially wider, conflict.

The Pentagon said on Friday that about 12 more aircraft, including refuelling planes, will be moved to the Gulf and the Indian Ocean to join nearly 350 US warplanes. This was in addition to 100 to 130 planes including F-16s, F-15s, B-52 bombers and tanker aircraft that were sent to the region last week. The US Army Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, has also been ordered to deploy troops.

Two aircraft carriers are already in the Persian Gulf or Indian Ocean, and a third, the Theodore Roosevelt, left Norfolk, Virginia last week for the Mediterranean. A fourth, the Kitty Hawk, has left its Yokosuka, Japan, base for an undisclosed location.

Turkey, a Nato ally in a sensitive position, said it had agreed to allow the US to use its air bases and air space. And Incirlik air-base in southern Turkey could be used for attacks. But America's allies – even in Nato – would be unwilling to see the operation go far beyond Afghanistan.

Some elements in the Bush administration would like to extend the offensive, mounting a renewed war against Iraq in particular. Many reports, some from Israel, claim Iraq was heavily involved in planning the assault on the US. But a campaign against Iraq would meet stiff opposition from France, Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, which has reportedly denied the US the right to use a large air operations centre near Riyadh.

Naming the likely offensive has proved problematic. Last week Muslim scholars protested against the Pentagon's decision to call the deployment of aircraft Oper- ation Infinite Justice. Only Allah can dispense infinite justice, they argued.

President Bush had already caused offence by referring to the action against terrorism as a "crusade", a word associated with brutal medieval campaigns against Islam.

Yesterday there were reports of SAS troopers already in place at countries bordering Afghanistan, along with US Green Beret and Navy Seal teams, preparing to capture Osama bin Laden. The MoD would neither confirm nor deny this action: "There is lots of talk. Things are at the planning stage and we are not going into detail. We never discuss the SAS."

The aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious and the cruise missile submarine HMS Trafalgar are among the 24 British vessels in the seas near Oman for Operation Saif Sareea II, a training exercise planned before the World Trade Centre attacks. There are 20,000 troops, 500 armoured vehicles and up to 60 jets taking part in the manoeuvres, any of which could be redeployed if necessary. British aircraft based in Turkey, Cyprus and Saudi Arabia are also within striking distance of Afghanistan.

The families of servicemen and women are being kept away from the media, the MoD said yesterday. "We don't know what is happening, and we don't want to unnecessarily worry families by putting them in touch with the media," said a spokesman.