SUEZ, Egypt - A US Navy ship carrying heavy military equipment sailed through the Suez Canal toward the Red Sea on Wednesday, the authorities said, amid a military buildup ahead of a possible war with Iraq.
The authorities identified the ship as the USNS Bob Hope, which the US Navy lists as a Large, Medium-Speed, Roll-on/Roll-off ship designed since the 1991 Gulf war to haul large quantities of supplies to conflict zones.
The Navy says such ships are non-combattant vessels crewed by civilians under the Navy's Military Sealift Command and used to pre-position tanks, trucks and other wheeled vehicles and supplies needed to support an Army heavy brigade.
US military forces pre-position equipment at desert bases in Kuwait and Qatar.
In Washington, a spokeswoman said Friday that the US Navy had taken bids to ship more ammunition and vehicles to ports on the Gulf, the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea.
Pentagon officials said they expected the contracts to be let in the next couple of days, in time for delivery of the equipment in late November or early December.
Over the past two months, the number of US servicemen and women in the Gulf region has soared to around 50,000, about 400 military aircraft are now stationed there, and at least three aircraft carriers and their assorted escort ships are on their way.
While the UN Security Council is still at odds over a US draft resolution on Iraq, US military planners are evidently keen to have all their pieces in place should they get the order to attack, with or without UN backing.
The optimum time for any such campaign would be during winter or very early spring - before the crushing heat and machine - clogging dust of summer.
The Bob Hope is one of three US Navy cargo ships assigned to take on heavy combat equipment, machinery and vehicles that may include tanks and helicopters. US officials have refused to give any details of their missions.
Plans have also been activated to call up retired merchant marine sailors to fill gaps in what appears to be a huge logistical transport operation to the Middle East by the US military that would involve around 50 chartered freighters.