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ARLINGTON, Va. — As the combat phase of the war in Iraq winds down, the Navy is preparing to send home two or possibly even three of the five carrier battle groups now supporting the war with Iraq, according to the senior sea service official prosecuting the conflict.

Speaking to Pentagon reporters from his headquarters in Bahrain on Saturday, Navy Vice Adm. Timothy Keating, commander of coalition naval forces, said that he is “talking with Gen. [Tommy] Franks as we speak” about sending some of the carrier groups back to the United States.

“The requirement for power projection has decreased a little bit” in recent days, Keating said, so “we are looking at a gradual and measured reduction” of the five carrier groups.

Until Baghdad fell on Wednesday, the pace of naval operations since the war began on March 20 was brutal. Navy and Marine pilots have flown over 7,000 combat sorties off the carriers, while more than 800 Tomahawk missiles were expended, Keating said.

While the operational tempo is still fairly high — almost 200 combat sorties were flown off carriers on Friday, Keating said — it’s now a rate that “we can sustain with one, maybe two less” carrier groups, he said.

Yet although “we are considering plans to let them go,” Franks, the Central Command general who has overall command of the war in Iraq, “hasn’t told me I can do it,” Keating said.

The key, Keating said, is a continued drop in the requirement for air sorties.

“If the sortie requirement goes down, then we’ll be able to send some [groups] home,” he said.

One carrier group, the USS Abraham Lincoln strike group, began steaming for her homeport in Everett, Wash., on April 9. The Lincoln had been in the Arabian Gulf since Sept. 11 last year and away from home for a total of 10 months — four months longer than the Navy’s usual six-month sea deployment.

But the Lincoln was replaced by the USS Nimitz and her battle group, keeping the total number of carriers in the Middle East at five: the Nimitz, the USS Kitty Hawk, and the USS Constellation in the Arabian Gulf; and the USS Theodore Roosevelt and the USS Truman in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea.

Keating hinted that in the Arabian Gulf, the Kitty Hawk, whose homeport is Yokosuka, Japan, would be first on the list if anyone leaves.

In fact, “the Kitty Hawk may leave in a couple of days,” Keating said.

Keating said that he is also anxious to send the USS Constellation group back to its port in San Diego. The group was already supposed to be home, but stayed to support the Iraq war.

“We’ll look to send her home,” Keating said. “We’re working on a plan to get [her sailors] home as soon as we can.”

But while “we’re anxious to get them home,” Keating said, “there have been no orders issued yet for either of these ships to leave.”

As for the Nimitz, because the group “just arrived, it’s near certain that we’ll keep her around for a while,” Keating said.

In the Mediterranean, “I think it might be logical to retain one carrier in the Med for a while and let the other group get home,” Keating said.

The Truman is on a regularly scheduled deployment, and “would have been somewhere” at this time anyway, war or no war, Keating said. That scheduled deployment ends in May.

But the Theodore Roosevelt group, which just finished a major Arabian Sea deployment in March 2002, was at homeport in Norfolk, Va., when the ships were called to the Middle East in February.

“They surged to prosecute Operation Iraqi Freedom,” Keating noted.

Therefore, if either of the two groups gets sent home, it will be the Roosevelt group, he said.

Some critics have said that sending five of the Navy’s 12 carrier battle groups to the Middle East was excessive and left other vital hot spots, such as North Korea, uncovered (a total of six groups are actually deployed right now; the USS Carl Vinson is in the Western Pacific).

Keating defended the deployments.

“I think five was just the right number,” he said.

Now that combat is winding down in Iraq, however, “the important piece here is that we’ve got to reconstitute our naval forces worldwide,” Keating said. “We need to get some [groups] home so we can reset, re-cock and be ready.”

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