Israeli 'restraint' hailed, but action now more likely WAR IN THE GULF

January 19, 1991|By Mark Matthews and Karen Hosler | Mark Matthews and Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- President Bush hailed Israeli "restraint" yesterday following the early-morning Iraqi missile attack, but administration officials said they received no assurance that the Jewish state would not retaliate at some point.

Israel was believed likely to retaliate after a new Scud missile attack shortly after daybreak this morning. One Cabinet minister was quoted as saying that retaliation was "almost inevitable."

President Bush was awakened at his retreat at Camp David and advised of the new attack by National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, but he had no immediate response.

Yesterday, the Israeli government had given mixed signals on a possible response. No decision was reported from a Cabinet meeting, but Defense Minister Moshe Arens was quoted as vowing that Israel would react at a time of its choosing.

[Meanwhile yesterday, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney declared an "airlift emergency" and ordered airlines to provide more planes to help ferry U.S. war supplies and equipment to the Middle East, the Associated Press reported. Officials said 17 planes would be pressed into service.

[Although Mr. Cheney's order covered 181 planes, the Military Airlift Command said it had no plans to use that many.

[The action puts into effect the second stage of a long-standing agreement between the government and the airline industry that commercial jets could be turned over to military service in an emergency.

[On Aug. 17, Mr. Cheney activated the first stage of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet plan, under which the government charters commercial aircraft. It obligates the airlines to provide the planes within 24 hours.

[Mr. Cheney said the Military Airlift Command would "use only airlift aircraft needed and would attempt to minimize disruption to regularly scheduled passenger service of participating airlines."

[The Pentagon has declined to identify the airlines involved.]

In a statement opening a news conference yesterday, President Bush said, "I want to state here publicly how much I appreciated Israel's restraint from the outset, really from the very beginning of this crisis. Prime Minister Shamir and his government have shown great understanding for the interests of the United States and the interest of others involved in this . . . coalition."

He pledged "the darnedest search-and-destroy effort that's ever been undertaken out in that area" to find Iraqi Scud missile batteries and the more elusive mobile launchers.

"I think everybody realizes what Saddam Hussein was trying to do, to change the course of the war, to weaken the coalition," Mr. Bush said. "And he's going to fail."

Among denunciations of Iraq elsewhere, the Soviet Union said in a statement: "It is clear that the aim of this action is to involve Israel in the conflict and inflame the conflict in the Middle East."

Britain's defense minister, Tom King, called Israel's choice not to retaliate "a wise decision because we know Saddam Hussein's trying to lay a trap."

Mr. Bush spoke by telephone yesterday with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who had spoken earlier in the day and Thursday night with Secretary of State James A. Baker III. The secretary himself met yesterday with the Saudi ambassador, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, and spoke with Egyptian Ambassador Sayed el-Reedy, who later expressed confidence that the coalition would hold together.

Officials said Israel stuck by its practice of avoiding any commitment not to retaliate, but one said, "They must have gotten the message."

"The use of chemical warheads, or the taking of heavy casualties as a result of a conventional attack, will almost certainly prompt Israeli retaliation," Michael Eisenstadt wrote in the Washington Institute for Near East Policy's Gulfwatch.

An Israeli bombing raid into Iraq could involve Jordan, which has threatened to combat any intrusion into its airspace. But Israel also possesses Jericho missiles capable of hitting Iraqi targets.

Following the first Iraqi missile attack, Israel scrambled some airplanes, giving the impression that it was about to retaliate. But an administration official said yesterday that none left Israeli airspace.

Mr. Bush made a strong gesture toward Jordan and other Arab states that have tilted toward Iraq, saying that "when all this is over, we want to be the healers."

"We're not going to suggest that Jordan, because they've taken this position, can't continue to be a tremendously important country in this new world order."

Mr. Bush again cautioned the public against unwarranted euphoria based on early successes and few casualties in the allied air war.

"We must be realistic," he said. "There will be losses. There will be obstacles along the way. And war is never cheap or easy."

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