Iraq masses forces near Kurdish area U.S., allies prepare to issue a warning

April 04, 1992|By Mark Matthews and Nelson Schwartz | Mark Matthews and Nelson Schwartz,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON $ — WASHINGTON -- Iraq has bolstered its troop buildup near Kurdish territory with a significant increase in firepower and surface-to-air missiles that could threaten U.S. and allied military aircraft that control skies in the region, U.S. officials say.

The United States, Britain and France plan to protest both the buildup and renewed Iraqi attacks against Iraq's Kurdish population in tough warnings slated for delivery at the United Nations early next week, according to diplomatic sources.

"I suspect he [Iraqi President Saddam Hussein] would do well to pay attention to this demarche," a senior U.S. official said.

The United States and its allies have controlled the skies above the 36th parallel in northern Iraq, barring any Iraqi flights over the territory, since shortly after an anti-Kurdish crackdown last spring following the Persian Gulf war. The planes operate from Turkey.

"We don't accept any endangering of our pilots. We will not tolerate any activities that endanger our pilots," a senior allied official said.

"They [the Iraqis] will be told in clear terms what the consequences would be if they were to operate their systems in any way that would be threatening to our aircraft." If they try to do this, the missiles will be "neutralized," he said.

The Iraqi buildup has occurred as the United Nations and Iraq head for a showdown as early as next week on destruction of a group of buildings at Iraq's nuclear weapons development site at al-Atheer.

A team of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency is due to arrive in Iraq on Tuesday or Wednesday to supervise destruction of the facilities. Iraq has not indicated whether it will cooperate.

Military action, including renewed bombing, has been mentioned the United States and Britain -- but any use of air power would be endangered by the new missile presence in northern Iraq.

The buildup of thousands of Iraqi troops in the area, along with its recent shelling of Kurdish villages, has given rise to fears among Western allies that Iraq could be on the verge of a renewed, bloody crackdown against the Kurds, whose rebellion it crushed mercilessly after the gulf war.

Next week's warnings in part will say, "Don't do it," a Western diplomat said. Allied officials say that Iraq has frequently and flagrantly violated U.N. Security Council Resolution 688, which bars repression of its population.

U.S. officials are unsure about the likelihood of a large-scale Iraqi attack on the Kurds. "There's no great concern that they're poised for a major offensive, but that doesn't mean we rule it out," an official said.

But worries have been heightened by what U.S. officials call a "significant increase in firepower," including tanks, artillery and air defenses. The latter include two types of surface-to-air missiles: SA2s and French Rolands.

The weaponry gives Iraqi forces the ability to attack with little or no warning, officials say.

The Bush administration has come under increased congressional pressure recently to give a clearer statement of policy on protecting the Kurds.

At a hearing this week, Rep. Stephen Solarz, a New York Democrat, urged the administration to consider military action against another Iraqi crackdown.

Rep. Lee Hamilton, an Indiana Democrat, complained that the U.S. posture of neither ruling out nor ruling in military action "is vague. It is imprecise. It is indefinite. And the Kurdish people do not know what we will do."

The situation is complicated by U.S. fears of splintering Iraq and of harming America's relationship with Turkey, which is combating a threatened southeast Turkey uprising fomented by the PKK, a group of Kurdish Marxist-Leninist terrorists. Attacks have been launched by Turkey against PKK strongholds in Iraq, with tacit U.S. approval.

Iraq has been known in the past to aid and provide weaponry to the PKK, which has also been aided by Iran and given a haven in the Syrian-controlled Bekaa Valley of Lebanon.

Dr. Najmaldin Karim, president of the Kurdish National Congress of North America, an umbrella organization of different Kurdish groups in the United States and Canada, said that he doesn't foresee a major Iraqi attack, however, "because it is too risky." He does expect smaller-scale moves by Iraq to continue, noting that the Iraqis "always want to test the allies and see how they respond."

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