Iraqi turmoil complicates U.S. plan for quick pullout WAR IN THE GULF

March 31, 1991|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- In extricating U.S. troops from Iraq, President Bush is struggling with a host of competing forces that threaten to tarnish America's image and undermine his goal of Persian Gulf stability.

The administration expects action by the United Nations Security Council early this week on a cease-fire resolution that it hopes will defang Iraq as a threat to its neighbors while allowing U.S. forces to leave.

But as the United States tries to hasten its departure, eyewitness accounts of the brutality inflicted by Iraqi troops in rebel-held territory indicate that withdrawal will be anything but painless.

The United States has refused to intervene on behalf of Iraqi rebels, arguing that to do so would exceed the U.N. Security Council mandate of ousting Iraqi forces from Kuwait.

Officials also say President Bush is determined to fulfill his pledge of bringing U.S. troops home soon and of not allowing the Persian Gulf war to turn into a drawn-out, Vietnam-style conflict.

Critics have compared the current stance to the U.S. posture of refusing to intervene in Hungary after encouraging an uprising against Communist rule in 1956.

Large numbers of refugees pouring into U.S.-held areas of southern Iraq have testified to widespread brutality by Iraqi forces.

One official acknowledged concern within the administration about the "worst case" possibility of a desperate scramble for protection by Iraqi refugees as U.S. forces withdraw, much as occurred when Americans left Vietnam.

A minority within the administration believes that the United States should be more active in support of the rebels, arguing that this would be more likely to produce a government acceptable to the United States. But the majority view is that whatever rebel group the United States chose to support would be tainted as a result.

As Iraq's government apparently is succeeding in crushing rebellions in the south and north of the country, some U.S. officials hope its military may become emboldened sufficiently to try to topple President Saddam Hussein.

"You can't get a coup when you're fighting a civil war," a senior Bush administration official said in summarizing the argument.

The administration refuses to predict an imminent coup. "It's somewhere between a prediction and wishful thinking," the official said.

Another official said Mr. Hussein remained in control of Iraq's military and security apparatus, although he would be "doomed" if the military were seen to turn against him.

A permanent cease-fire resolution in the gulf war, in hastening U.S. withdrawal, might assist Iraq in crushing further internal uprisings.

While coalition forces remain in southern Iraq, the United States is sticking by its threat to shoot down any Iraqi fixed-wing aircraft used against rebels, viewing such flights as a violation of understandings reached between Iraq and the U.S. gulf commander, Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf.

But if Iraq accepts the cease-fire resolution and U.S. troops leave, "any truce arrangement would no longer be applicable," a U.S. official said.

The administration has refused to give a timetable for withdrawal. One official said it was "perfectly conceivable" that Mr. Hussein would have been overthrown "by the endgame."

While staying out of Iraq's internal troubles, the administration believes that the emerging cease-fire resolution will virtually eliminate Iraq as a threat to the region.

It would require Iraq to destroy its most dangerous weapons, including chemical and biological arms, bar all military sales and set aside a portion of oil revenue to pay reparations for the invasion and destruction of Kuwait.

"The combination of [the war] and the resolution will put a real crimp in Iraq's ability to threaten its neighbors," an administration official said.

In a concession to the Soviet Union, the United States is willing to allow Iraq to keep missiles with a range of less than 90 miles.

But while removing Iraq's military threat to the region, the United States is equally anxious to prevent the fractured country from being dismembered and thereby disrupt the regional power balance with Iran.

While avoiding overt aid to Shiite Muslim rebels in southern Iraq, Iran has given them both military and moral support.

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