WASHINGTON -- President Bush demanded yesterday that Iraq pay for the damage caused by its "environmental terrorism" in the Persian Gulf. But he admitted that might be easier said than done for a nation embroiled in what has virtually become a civil war.
Mr. Bush, referring to Iraq's wartime burning of hundreds of Kuwaiti oil wells, as well as its deliberate spilling of hundreds of millions of gallons of oil into the gulf, said, "Iraq must pay reparations or pay damages, and the more one looks at the environmental terrorism that they embraced, that they brought about, the more the world understands that they have got to do something about that."
Mr. Bush said Iraq is "a potentially wealthy country" that has squandered the riches of its oil revenues on buying a high-technology army now lying in ruins on the plains of Kuwait and southern Iraq. So, now, he said, "We have got to see that they use their resources for helping their own people."
And that, he said, will be difficult to do because of the turmoil sweeping the country.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said yesterday that "heavy fighting" is continuing between between government forces and dissident groups in northern and southern Iraq.
"Kurdish dissidents now appear to control large portions of predominately Kurdish areas of northern and northeastern Iraq," Mr. Boucher said. "Fighting is also continuing in the South . . . but the overall situation in that area is unclear."
Officially, the U.S. has decided not to get involved backing either side in the fighting, though no one makes a secret of the wish that the struggle will topple the autocratic regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Mr. Bush also said yesterday that he senses a softening in old, stubborn positions in the Middle East, and he urged quick action on peace efforts before those positions re-harden.
"We want to seize the moment," Mr. Bush said. ". . . I think the longer one waits to take any initiatives, the danger is things revert back to a status quo, and I think that will be unacceptable."
Mr. Bush made his remarks shortly after a morning meeting with Secretary of State James A. Baker III, who just returned from a diplomatic mission to five Middle Eastern nations.
The president said Mr. Baker is "hopeful that we can move forward. And we're certainly going to try." He said that Mr. Baker "has some specific ideas that we need to talk about" concerning the region's three thorniest problems: residual tension in the Persian Gulf, the longtime Israeli-Palestinian dispute and violent instability in Lebanon. But Mr. Bush said he did not yet want to publicly discuss any of the specifics.
Mr. Baker reported similar sentiments last weekend after completing his swing through Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt, Israel and Syria. He also met with 10 Palestinian Arabs.