WASHINGTON -- U.S. troops could remain in Iraq even after the signing of a permanent cease-fire agreement if civil strife within that nation is raging, U.S. officials said yesterday.
The White House continued to insist that President Bush wanted to bring all the forces from Operation Desert Storm home as soon as possible, and Iraq's agreement to the terms of a formal cease-fire now being drafted by the United States and its coalition partners was described as the critical requirement.
But White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater would not guarantee that a permanent cease-fire would be enough if battles continued between Iraqi government and rebel forces.
"We'll have to wait and make those judgments when we come to them," Mr. Fitzwater said.
About 80,000 U.S. troops have already been redeployed to the United States or Europe from the Persian Gulf, leaving 450,000 to 460,000 in the region, according to Pentagon officials.
So far, the United States is dealing with the internal warfare within Iraq "in such a way that it does not disrupt or in any way stymie our ability to get troops out of there," Mr. Fitzwater said.
A problem may develop, however, some weeks or months from now when the last U.S. troops are about to leave Iraq if something approaching civil war is raging near the Kuwaiti border, administration officials said.
For the moment, Mr. Bush and the U.S. allies are concentrating on the preparation of a cease-fire resolution to be considered within the next few days by the United Nations Security Council that would set the
anti-Iraq coalition's terms for a formal peace.
Mr. Bush told lawmakers yesterday that those terms would tie the lifting of economic sanctions against Iraq to the elimination of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and its payment of reparations to Kuwait and other war-ravaged nations in the region.
Specific mechanics for this linkage are still being debated by diplomats behind the scenes, but British Prime Minister John Major said after a meeting with Mr. Bush on Saturday that he wanted to see the supervised destruction of Iraq's remaining chemical, biological and nuclear weapons and a plan to finance war reparations with Iraq's oil revenues.
The cease-fire resolution also would formally recognize the borders to which Iraq and Kuwait agreed in 1963 and establish a U.N. observer force to provide security along the boundary between the two nations, Mr. Bush said, according to an account of the meeting provided by Mr. Fitzwater.
Egypt and Syria are expected to be heavily involved in the border security, Mr. Fitzwater said, adding that Mr. Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker III also envision a much larger military role in the region for the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
The United States also plans to expand its continuing naval presence in the region beyond the four or five vessels stationed there over the last four decades and will seek some kind of basing rights for aircraft that would be used on occasional maneuvers, Mr. Bush told the legislators.
Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, told reporters that he pressed Mr. Bush for assurances that the withdrawal of U.S. ground forces was not being held up by the strife within Iraq.