WASHINGTON -- Hundreds of Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles rolled across a pontoon bridge at Fort Hood, Texas, yesterday during a training exercise to prepare soldiers of the 1st Cavalry Division for river crossings under fire.
At Fort Stewart in Georgia, commanders of the 3rd Infantry Division participated recently in a detailed planning and mapping exercise aimed at building temporary bridges and safely moving thousands of troops and hundreds of armored vehicles across rivers.
The emphasis on rivers is no coincidence: Two major rivers -- the Tigris and Euphrates -- slice across President Saddam Hussein's Iraq. And there's nothing random about the units involved in training to cross them.
The 1st Cavalry and 3rd Infantry are among five divisions tapped for possible deployment to the Persian Gulf region should President Bush decide on military action to topple Hussein, senior officers and Pentagon officials said.
Officials said the others are the 1st Armored and 1st Infantry divisions, both based in Germany, and the 101st Air Assault Division at Fort Campbell, Ky.
Three of the divisions will finish regularly scheduled training by the end of the year that would ready them for an assault that some Pentagon officials and military analysts say could begin in January or February. And officers point to stepped-up training for some units designated for possible deployment that coincides with the war talk in Washington.
During the three-day exercise that concludes today at Fort Hood, Apache Longbow helicopters were to attack mock enemy positions, Army divers to search for obstructions and underwater mines, and military engineers to assemble the pontoon bridge.
A 1st Cavalry officer and others at the Pentagon said the Fort Hood exercise has been greatly expanded. An initial plan for 1,000 troops to take part in the crossing grew in the past month to include nearly the entire 17,000-soldier division.
"That raised a bunch of eyebrows," said the 1st Cavalry officer, who requested anonymity. "It just feels like we're on the road to war."
Two years ago, the division trained for a river crossing with other soldiers at Fort Hood. But this time, the officer said, it appears that there is a particular river in mind.
"I don't know, the Euphrates River, say?" the officer said.
The officer said there is a renewed emphasis at Fort Hood on equipping and training soldiers for chemical and biological attacks, owing to Hussein's stockpile of such weapons and fears among the Army brass that the Iraqi dictator might use them in a last-ditch fight for survival.
Officers are being asked to make sure that soldiers of the 1st Cavalry have changed the filters in their gas masks and are adept at using atropine, a nerve gas antidote that is administered by injection.
However, Maj. Victor Harris, a 1st Cavalry spokesman, dismissed talk of beefed-up training or renewed emphasis on chemical and biological defenses. And he stressed that the division has received no deployment orders for Iraq.
For months, he said, the division's commander, Maj. Gen. Joe Peterson, had planned to have nearly the entire division take part in the river crossing exercise at Fort Hood.
"It helps us exercise all components of our combat skills," Harris said.
If Bush gives the order, Pentagon officials and military officers said some or all of the five divisions could take part in the fight, depending on the war plan that is decided upon. The selection of the divisions was based on the needed capabilities -- a mixture of heavily armored and mechanized divisions as well as the fast-moving, air-mobile troops.
The planning exercise at Fort Stewart included everything from identifying river crossing points and routes for moving engineers into position to communications and troop protection.
"We have no order saying we're going to Iraq," said Maj. Mike Birmingham, a 3rd Infantry Division spokesman. "We understand the potential terrain in Iraq, and it's prudent planning. The commanding general said we need to look at how this division is going to do a river crossing."
Pentagon officials and military officers said they did not know which divisions would deploy first. But the Georgia-based 3rd Infantry Division is moving about 4,500 soldiers from its 2nd Brigade for a regular six-month deployment to Kuwait to relieve its 3rd Brigade, stationed in the desert emirate that abuts Iraq, Birmingham said. That rotation is to be completed by December.
The 3rd Infantry, the Army's only mechanized rapid deployment division, is supposed to be able to move a brigade and its equipment anywhere in the world within 96 hours.
Officers said it would take the 1st Cavalry Division about 45 days to move its equipment by ship to the Persian Gulf. The armored division's lethal punch includes 281 Bradley fighting vehicles, 275 Abrams tanks, 18 Apache Longbow helicopters and 54 Paladin artillery guns.
Planners from the 1st Cavalry Division have traveled to Germany to meet with counterparts in the Army's 5th Corps, which includes two other units designated for possible action in Iraq, the 1st Armored and the 1st Infantry divisions, officers said.
Should there be a war with Iraq, both Germany-based divisions would likely move by rail to Italy, where their tanks and equipment would be loaded aboard ships bound for the Persian Gulf.
Meanwhile, elements of the 3rd Infantry and the 1st Cavalry are slated for training this fall at the Army's sprawling National Training Center in California's Mojave Desert. The training site is roughly the size of Rhode Island, and its tawny mountains and wide, sandy stretches closely resemble the barren landscape of much of Iraq.
The 101st Airborne Division's 3rd Brigade will head next month to the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk in Louisiana for three weeks of exercises, said Maj. Paul Fitzpatrick, a division spokesman.
One Army officer said it was no surprise that the 101st Airborne would be added to any war plan, given its "uniqueness."
The division is the Army's only air assault division, with some 300 attack and transport helicopters.