Baker talks tough to U.S. troops Hussein foresees 'showdown' 'We pass the brink' soon, secretary tells airmen

January 12, 1991|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Sun Staff Correspondent

CAIRO, Egypt -- Secretary of State James A. Baker III, saying "we pass the brink at midnight, January 15," told U.S. airmen in Saudi Arabia yesterday that "you will not have to wait much longer" to know whether they will be sent into battle.

In a day of increasingly tough rhetoric on both sides of the Persian Gulf conflict, officials indicated that the United States and Saudi Arabia were in total agreement on how to proceed after Tuesday.

Mr. Baker also said that he was "very satisfied" with Saudi pledges to help shoulder added U.S. costs from the huge troop buildup and higher sums should war break out.

A senior Saudi official told reporters in Riyadh that his country would bear 40 percent to 50 percent of the costs of confronting fTC Iraq. But he gave no figures, and U.S. officials said they could not confirm the percentages.

The United Arab Emirates also pledged to maintain its financial support for the U.S. military effort, a State Department official said.

Mr. Baker arrived in Cairo last night midway through a final multination tour to draw a consensus among U.S. allies on what should happen after the deadline and to gauge reaction to various scenarios war might pose.

His rousing speech to the same group of U.S. airmen he visited in September, the 48th Tactical Fighter Wing, gave his strongest threat yet that the United States plans to launch hostilities soon after the United Nations deadline unless Iraqi President Saddam Hussein moves.

"When I talked to you four months ago, some of you told me that you were ready. But you also asked how long before you would know whether you would be called into action to undo this terrible aggression," he told the troops.

"Now as the clock ticks down to midnight Jan. 15, I cannot give you a definitive answer. But I can tell you that you will not have to wait much longer for an answer to that question.

"We believe that if Iraq is going to withdraw from Kuwait, Saddam Hussein will probably wait until he is on the very brink before he moves. And our worry is that in his usual style, he will miscalculate where the brink exactly is," Mr. Baker added.

"Just so there is no misunderstanding, let me be absolutely clear: We pass the brink at midnight, Jan. 15."

Efforts to extend or postpone the deadline "will not succeed," he said. "Saddam can believe that or not, but if he doesn't, he will have made his most tragic miscalculation."

Mr. Baker's comments were echoed by a senior Saudi official, who said that "you can safely assume" that the United States and the Saudis were in sync on strategy.

"After the 15th, anything could happen," the Saudi official said.

A senior State Department official, briefing reporters later on Mr. Baker's plane, confirmed that no further consultations would be needed with the Saudis.

Mr. Baker, while citing the U.N. resolution authorizing the United States and its allies to go to war if Iraq has not withdrawn by the deadline, did not specifically say that total withdrawal had to occur by then.

A senior official hinted Thursday that Mr. Hussein could forestall military action by actively starting withdrawal before the 15th even if it weren't completed by the deadline.

While in Abu Dhabi yesterday, Mr. Baker raised with leaders of the United Arab Emirates how they would react if Israel were drawn into a conflict.

"He was quite satisfied with the response that he received," a senior State Department official said.

Iraq has threatened to attack Israel if war breaks out, stirring fears that Israel's expected retaliation would split the United States from its Arab allies in the conflict.

Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger plans to go to Israel this weekend for consultations as part of the United States' diplomatic efforts before the deadline.

Meanwhile, Mr. Baker has stayed in touch with the European Community while maintaining a distance from diplomatic proposals advanced by or attributed to its members.

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