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ARLINGTON, Va. — The USS Iwo Jima Strike Group and its 2,200 Marines and sailors have been dispatched to help evacuate U.S. citizens from Lebanon, according to the U.S. Navy.

The five-ship strike group and the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit are expected to assist with evacuation efforts later this week, the Navy news release says.

The 24th MEU is currently aboard the Iwo Jima along with the amphibious ships USS Nashville and USS Whidbey Island, all of which recently completed exercises in Jordan.

Nine ships, including three from Europe, are expected to take part in the evacuation, said Vice Adm. Patrick Walsh, commander of 5th Fleet.

The plan is to use helicopters and landing craft to transport Americans from Lebanon to amphibious ships in the strike group, Walsh told reporters Tuesday.

The Marines onboard the amphibious ships include a “ground element that we will have in ready reserve in the event that we need them,” Walsh said.

Right now, the situation allows the U.S. military to take Americans out of Lebanon by ship, he said.

“However we’re very much aware of the movement of weapons into the area and how the situation can change rapidly, so the benefit of having the Marines Expeditionary Unit on board is that we can adjust to changing conditions on the battlefield,” Walsh said.

U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey D. Feltman has said 320 Americans would leave Lebanon by the end of Tuesday and 1,000 the following day.

On Tuesday evening, a Greek cruise ship chartered to evacuate U.S. citizens arrived in Beirut and was expected to leave early Wednesday with between 800 and 1,000 passengers, Walsh said.

Officials are looking to hire four or five additional commercial ships to ferry Americans to Cyprus, said Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman.

To complement ship evacuations, six helicopters were expected to be part of evacuation efforts by the end of Tuesday, Whitman said. Combined, the helicopters have the capacity to transport up to 300 people per day, he said.

Three of the helicopters are from the 24th MEU and three others are from a U.S. base in England.

“My understanding of the situation is that the Embassy is using those [helicopters] for primarily special needs type cases, perhaps people aren’t suited for a five-hour ocean transit, or something like that,” Whitman said.

The Air Force also has a group of airmen who specialize in managing emergency operations at small or stressed airfields waiting to leave for Cyprus from McGuire Air Force Base, N.J., according to Tech. Sgt. Dwayne Gordon, a spokesman for the 305th Air Mobility Wing at that base.

The McGuire group “was supposed to lift off yesterday,” but instead was told to hold in place, Gordon told Stripes on Tuesday.

The group is expected to in Cyprus “within the next 24 hours,” said Air Force spokeswoman Maj. Brenda Campbell on Tuesday.

Stripes reporter Lisa Burgess and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

Steaming toward Lebanon

Nine ships are expected to take part in the evacuation of Americans from Beirut, Lebanon.

The ships are:

USS Iwo JimaUSS TrentonUSS NashvilleUSS Whidbey IslandHigh Speed Vessel SwiftUSS GonzalezUSS BarryUSS Mount WhitneyUSNS Big HornSource: Navy Office of Information

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