WASHINGTON -- Bush administration policy-makers are intensely studying a rash of confusing signals from occupied Kuwait that could indicate an Iraqi plan to withdraw from part of the country, officials said yesterday.
But at the same time, President Bush and his senior aides continued to issue bellicose warnings about Iraqi atrocities in Kuwait -- warnings that one official said were part of a deliberate campaign to prepare the American people for the possibility of military action against Iraqi forces.
Mr. Bush, campaigning in Texas, for the first time explicitly compared Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to Adolf Hitler and, also for the first time, publicly raised the possibility of a war crimes trial for the Iraqi leader's "ghastly atrocities" against Ku
"The story of two young kids passing out leaflets: Iraqi troops rounded up their parents and made them watch while those two kids were shot to death, executed before their eyes," Mr. Bush said as he listed the "horrible tales" of Iraq's actions in Kuwait.
"Hitler revisited," Mr. Bush declared. "Remember -- when Hitler's war ended, there were the Nuremberg trials," a reference to the war crimes trials that followed World War II.
Administration officials have privately been investigating the possibility of such trials since August, but the remark was Mr. Bush's first public acknowledgment of the possibility.
The strong rhetoric, U.S. officials say, is part of an effort to keep international pressure focused on Iraq at a time when events elsewhere in the Middle East, particularly in Israel, threaten to create dissension within
the anti-Iraq alliance.
Even more dissension would be likely if Iraq did withdraw from portions of Kuwait, officials fear. And the new signs that partial withdrawal may be a possibility have prompted considerable discussion within the administration.
Earlier this fall, some U.S. analysts, pointing to massive looting of Kuwait, had suggested that Mr. Hussein was planning to strip the country first, then pull out of most of it. Iraq's chief interests in Kuwait, the analysts noted, are a large oil field straddling the border between the two nations, and two Kuwaiti islands, Warba and Bubiyan, that command the approaches to Iraq's lone Persian Gulf port.
Iraqi denials of any willingness to withdraw from any part of Kuwait had quieted such speculation. But the possibility is now being taken seriously once more because of more recent signals, ranging from movements of border signposts by Iraqi
troops to statements by a ranking Soviet official who visited Baghdad that Mr. Hussein indicated a willingness to withdraw from much of Kuwait.
In Saudi Arabia, the wife of Kuwait's planning minister, who recently left Kuwait, reported that Iraq was fencing off the northern third of Kuwait -- an area that includes the oil field and the disputed islands.
"The Iraqis are setting up a wire fence across Kuwait. They apparently plan to gulp up Bubiyan and the northeastern oil field," said Fatima Hussein, who fled her occupied country last week. She is the wife of Planning Minister Suleiman Abdul-Razzak al-Muttawa.
Kuwaiti officials at the government-in-exile in Saudi Arabia are clearly alarmed about the possibility of what for many of them has been a nightmare scenario: a partial Iraqi pullout that would likely force fatal leaks in the international alliance against Iraq.