Iraqis seize arms from U.N. post in Kuwait 15 missiles taken

Baghdad blocks inspection team

January 11, 1993|By Melissa Healy and Art Pine | Melissa Healy and Art Pine,Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- The confrontation between the West and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein escalated to a new crisis level yesterday as 200 Iraqi soldiers raided a United Nations bunker in the demilitarized zone between Kuwait and Iraq, brushing aside U.N. troops that were guarding the installation.

U.S. officials said that the Iraqis, claiming they were acting "under the highest authority," carried away a sizable cache of weapons, including 15 Silkworm surface-to-surface missiles. They vowed to "level" the area by today if U.N. troops did not withdraw.

The raid constituted the boldest attempt by the Iraqi military since the Persian Gulf war to challenge U.N. forces anywhere in Iraq and was certain to increase the possibility that the United States might use military force to retaliate against the Iraqis.

A U.S. official called the incident "a flagrant violation" of U.N. Security Council Resolution 687, which governs the cease-fire accord, and a far more egregious flouting of U.N. authority than Iraq's brief movement of missiles into the "no-fly zone" early last week.

At the same time, Iraq also refused yesterday to allow a U.N. plane carrying a weapons inspection team to land in Baghdad, dismissing U.S. and U.N. warnings that such actions could lead to "serious consequences."

Both the Bush administration and the United Nations reacted angrily to the latest Iraqi provocations. The White House, acting through U.S. allies, privately issued stern new warnings to Iraq not to carry out its threats to level the U.N. bunker and to bar more U.N. flights.

At U.S. insistence, the U.N. Security Council scheduled an emergency meeting today to discuss the Iraqi violations, with expectations that council members would act quickly -- probably within the next day or two -- to formulate a strong response.

Although officials declined to say precisely what the United States would recommend, it is clear that military action is among the main options that the allies will consider. Washington already has said that it would not issue any new warnings before launching a strike.

Diplomats said that the action taken by the Security Council would depend mainly on Iraq's behavior in the next few hours. They said that if Baghdad backed down, it could escape with little more than another warning.

But they warned that if Iraqi forces carried out their threat to level the bunker -- or if Baghdad continued to bar U.N. flights -- the council could order military action or impose even tougher new restrictions, such as the no-fly zone limits that it set last August.

It was not immediately clear whether the Bush administration, in its waning days in office, would be eager -- or even able -- to muster a new international coalition to send ground troops to quell the Iraqis.

But officials said that the allies have substantial air and naval power in the area and might seek to destroy the Silkworms the Iraqis took yesterday. "Words alone aren't going to do anything here," one official said. "It's a question of whether we're willing to back this up with force."

The United States also planned urgent consultations with its key U.N. allies -- Britain, France and Russia -- early today to decide on a joint strategy. U.S. military forces in the Persian Gulf region remained on high-alert status yesterday.

Yesterday's incidents came barely a day after Iraq narrowly averted a round of intensive U.S. air strikes, moving its missiles from threatening positions in the country's southern no-fly zone just in time to meet a 48-hour ultimatum that the allies had issued late Wednesday.

Although President Bush had claimed Saturday that Iraq had "backed down" in the missile flap, an Iraqi spokesman insisted yesterdaythat Baghdad had merely moved its missiles to "the places we decided they should be" and not because of the U.S. military threat.

The demilitarized zone was set up after the end of the Persian Gulf war to reduce the prospect of clashes between Iraq and Kuwait. A special U.N. Iraq-Kuwait Observation Mission, known as UNIKOM, has mapped a new border and is posting new boundaries.

The U.N. soldiers who were guarding the bunker yesterday morning were lightly armed and stepped aside without resistance when the Iraqi force appeared. Moreover, although the U.N. force is authorized to reach 500 soldiers, it has only 250 troops.

Iraq's refusal to allow U.N. aircraft to land on its soil already has been denounced as unacceptable by the United States and the Security Council. Although Iraq had announced the no-U.N.-landings policy Friday, yesterday marked the first time that it actually has carried out its threat to bar U.N. planes from landing at Iraqi airports.

Besides the U.N. weapons inspection teams, the ban also would bar U.N. personnel working for UNIKOM and for humanitarian relief efforts aimed at supporting Kurdish rebels.

Baghdad said yesterday that it would allow the inspection team back into Iraq if it agreed to fly on Iraqi planes.

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