Iraq linked to plot to kill Bush jTC U.S. considering how to respond

May 09, 1993|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration has found stron evidence that the Iraqi government directed a 17-member squad in a plot to assassinate former President George Bush during his visit to Kuwait three weeks ago, government officials said yesterday.

They said signs of Iraqi sponsorship were not yet conclusive. But some senior policy-makers were said to have become convinced that Iraq was behind the attack, and the officials said consideration was being given to how the United States should respond.

But it appeared unlikely that the administration would authorize any quick action against Iraq. The White House remains preoccupied with finding a way to halt aggression in Bosnia, and officials said they would make no decisions until a team of federal investigators dispatched to Kuwait made a clearer judgment about Iraqi involvement.

"We've got enough on our hands with Bosnia to begin other kinds of discussion before the evidence is clear," an administration official said yesterday after a White House meeting of President Clinton and national security advisers.

All but one of the suspects, including 11 Iraqi nationals, are in custody in Kuwait, where they have been charged with conspiring to kill Mr. Bush. Among the options being discussed within the administration is a request that Kuwait allow them to be tried in the United States.

But some of Mr. Clinton's top advisers have indicated to their colleagues that more direct retribution may be required, officials said. They said top officials at the CIA and the Pentagon had argued that a state-ordered conspiracy against a former president's life requires the punishment of the government that is responsible.

None of the plotters got near Mr. Bush, and some were arrested before the U.S. entourage arrived in Kuwait on April 14.

U.S. officials initially expressed skepticism that the group intended anything more than sabotage. But the administration began to revise that assessment after reviewing evidence that an arsenal smuggled by the group into Kuwait from Iraq included a sophisticated car bomb. While refusing to provide specific details, U.S. officials said yesterday that the design of the bomb and other evidence pointed to Iraqi government support for the plot.

The emerging evidence of Iraqi sponsorship of the plot was first reported yesterday in the Washington Post.

George Stephanopoulos, the White House spokesman, declined to say yesterday whether the administration had obtained such evidence, but declared, "If we determine Iraq was involved in state-sponsored terrorism, the United States will take appropriate action against Iraq."

Even if that decision is postponed, the development could raise a new foreign policy dilemma for Mr. Clinton, who is still seeking support at home and abroad for action aimed at halting Serbian aggression in Bosnia.

The Kuwaiti government has said that at least one suspect confessed under investigation to being an officer in Iraq's secret intelligence service. Others have told the Kuwaitis that the group received training in a camp outside Baghdad, and government officials said yesterday that they were eager to confirm those reports.

Without offering details, they suggested that there may also be forensic evidence showing that the car bomb seized by Kuwaiti authorities in the plot was of Iraqi design and origin.

U.S. officials said yesterday that they have no doubt that the group planned one or more remote-controlled car bomb attacks during Mr. Bush's visit to Kuwait City from April 14 through 16, when the former president received an award from the emir in recognition of the U.S.-led military operation that drove the Iraqis from Kuwait.

Those arrested by Kuwaiti authorities in the plot include five Kuwaiti residents of Iraqi origin as well as the 11 Iraqis, who had illegally crossed the border into Kuwait. Another Iraqi is still being sought by the authorities.

All have been charged with conspiracy to kill Mr. Bush and to execute "other acts of terrorism, infiltration and robbery."

Kuwait did not advise the United States about its discovery of the plot until well after Mr. Bush arrived in the country, an omission that angered the State Department and the Secret Service.

A spokesman for Mr. Bush said the former president was told of the case during his stay in Kuwait but had "nothing but total faith in the Secret Service, so he just continued his trip."

While the White House meeting yesterday morning focused exclusively on Bosnia, administration officials said it was briefly sidetracked as Mr. Clinton and his top deputies discussed the evidence against Iraq.

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