WASHINGTON -- A top Iraqi official conceded yesterday that the United States had the ability to "level" his country but maintained that the United States would win the enmity of Arabs throughout the Islamic world if it did.
"You have the power to level Iraq, no doubt about that," said Mohamed Sadiq al-Mashat, Iraq's ambassador to the United States. "But what are you going to collect afterward?"
Mr. Mashat's comments represented the most comprehensive response yet by the Iraqi government to the latest buildup of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf. One administration official later said that the remarks suggested that the Iraqi government might have entered a new phase in its escalating war of rhetoric with the United States and its European allies.
In his appearance on ABC-TV's "This Week With David Brinkley," Mr. Mashat warned U.S. officials yesterday of the consequences of a U.S. victory on the battlefield rather than of the possibility of a military defeat.
The U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, speculated that the statement was intended to foster disputes in the Western alliance over the wisdom of forcibly ousting Iraq from conquered Kuwait, as compared with the mere feasibility of doing so.
"You are going to collect the animosity of all grass-roots Arabs in the whole Arab world," said Mr. Mashat. "You are going to collect the animosity of all Moslems, because you are going to attack Iraq from the holy land, and so this is what you are going to get in return."
On Thursday, President Bush ordered a "substantial" increase in U.S. forces deployed in the Middle East, including three more aircraft carriers, another battleship, three heavy tank divisions from Europe and a sizable array of other combat forces. The latest deployment could increase U.S. troops levels in the region to about 400,000.
Mr. Bush said that he would seek authorization for the use of force from the United Nations Security Council and that he knew of no country among the panel's five permanent members that would seek to block it.
Administration officials, meanwhile, said the new military expansion was intended to impress Iraqi President Saddam Hussein with the United States' determination to force his troops out of Kuwait if he did not withdraw them.
On Friday, Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz insisted that "the additional number is not going to scare us." Those words, coupled with other remarks by Iraqi officials in the wake of Mr. Bush's order, led many analysts to believe that the significance of the latest U.S. buildup had been lost on Mr. Hussein.
But diplomatic events of the last few days have given Mr. Hussein little reason for encouragement. After Secretary of State James A. Baker III traveled to Moscow, Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev warned the Iraqi leader not to expect "cracks" in the alliance between the superpowers and said that military force might be needed to pry Iraq from Kuwait.
A high-ranking Chinese delegation visited the Iraqi capital of Baghdad yesterday with news that China, a permanent member of the Security Council, would not veto a resolution calling for the use of force against Iraq, even though it did not intend to vote in favor of it.
"Hussein has got to be impressed with the international front he is facing," said the administration official. "I thought the ambassador's remarks contained a tinge of desperation."