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U.S. carrier stays at sea; Iraqi troops train

From Jamie McIntyre
CNN Washington Bureau

An F-14D Tomcat takes off from the USS Abraham Lincoln in the Persian Gulf in this November photo.
An F-14D Tomcat takes off from the USS Abraham Lincoln in the Persian Gulf in this November photo.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The U.S. Navy has extended the tour of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln in case it is needed for action against Iraq, Pentagon sources told CNN Thursday.

In Iraq, meanwhile, two brigades of Saddam Hussein's best troops have been conducting training exercises in urban combat and defense against chemical attack, sources said.

The decision to continue the deployment of the USS Lincoln, along with its battle group of ships, means that as many as four U.S. carriers could be available in case hostilities occur.

Three other carriers are being readied for deployment ahead of schedule -- the USS Theodore Roosevelt on the East Coast and the USS Carl Vinson and USS Nimitz on the West Coast.

The USS Roosevelt is scheduled to depart Norfolk, Virginia, later this month for training exercises near Puerto Rico and could be ready to deploy by February.

The United States already has two carrier battle groups in the Middle East. The USS Constellation and its ships are in the Persian Gulf and the USS Harry S. Truman group is in the Mediterranean Sea.

The USS Lincoln is off the coast of Australia will stop in Perth for routine maintenance instead of heading to its home port of Everett, Washington, sources said.

Another carrier that could see service in an Iraq war is the USS Kitty Hawk, based in Yokosuka, Japan. It is considered a "surge carrier" that can be deployed whenever it is needed. In addition, the USS George Washington is in port in Norfolk on 96-hour alert.

Training near Baghdad

Iraqi forces were active too, Pentagon sources said. Two brigades of the Republican Guard, considered Saddam's best troops, have been training near Baghdad, Pentagon sources said.

A U.S. official familiar with the latest intelligence reports from Iraq said one brigade from the Al Nedaa Armored Division conducted urban warfare training west of Baghdad.

A second brigade from the al Madina al Munawara Armored Division conducted chemical weapons defensive exercises southeast of Baghdad, the official said.

Pentagon officials downplayed the significance of the training, saying the "highly scripted" exercises appeared to be part of Iraq's normal training cycle.

U.S. intelligence officials have predicted that Saddam is likely to order the use of chemical or biological weapons if his regime is threatened, and the United States continues urging Iraqi generals not to carry out any such orders.



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