U.S. sees no Iraqi pullback, beefs up airpower

October 11, 1994|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton held a firm line against Saddam Hussein last night, saying that he had seen no evidence that Iraq was withdrawing the tens of thousands of soldiers massed on Kuwait's border and that he was proceeding with a buildup of thousands of U.S. troops and aircraft in the region.

The president yesterday ordered dozens of B-52 bombers and F-15E fighters to the area on top of the 28,000 troops and #F warships already dispatched to block a second Iraqi invasion of the oil-rich emirate.

His refusal to halt the U.S. buildup came despite Iraq's announcements in New York and Baghdad earlier yesterday that it would pull back troops now poised near the Kuwait border.

"We are interested in facts, not promises, in deeds, not words, and we have not yet seen evidence that Iraq's troops are in fact pulling back. We will be watching closely to see that they do so," Mr. Clinton said in a televised speech to the nation.

"Our policy is clear: we will not allow Iraq to threaten its neighbors or to intimidate the United Nations as it ensures that Iraq never again possesses weapons of mass destruction. Moreover, the [United Nations] sanctions will be maintained until Iraq complies with all relevant U.N. resolutions," he said.

Iraq last week began what U.S. officials said was a movement of elite Republican Guard divisions, with 7,000 to 8,000 troops each, toward the Kuwaiti border, joining about 50,000 Iraqi pTC troops already there, in a manner similar to the 1990 prelude to its invasion of Kuwait that led to the Persian Gulf war.

Taking all Iraqi troop movements together, Pentagon officials estimated the Iraqis could quickly assemble a force in or near the border of more than 80,000. Though unsure of Mr. Hussein's intentions, President Clinton decided not to take a chance and launched a broad, well-publicized buildup of warships, aircraft and troops.

Iraqis' view

Hours after the first 300 soldiers arrived in Kuwait City, Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations, Nizar Hamdoon, said that Iraqi forces would withdraw from the Kuwaiti border and that they were "already on the move." He said they would be sent to a site north of Basra.

In Baghdad, Foreign Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf said troops would be deployed to "other locations" further north to finish military exercises. He told the official Iraqi news agency that the withdrawal had been ordered in response to appeals from unspecified "friends" and "in view of the fact that the troops' presence might be used as a pretext to maintain sanctions."

Any Iraqi withdrawal, officials said, would be hard to verify by airborne reconnaissance until daylight today.

Baghdad's announced pullback still left the White House and the U.N. Security Council to search for new ways to prevent President Saddam Hussein from being able to threaten, at will, a region vital to the economic well-being of the West. National security officials met yesterday to consider a range of options for restraining future Iraqi aggression.

Kuwait, which had mobilized its own defenses at the border, urged against accepting Iraq's words at face value.

"We cannot, and the international community cannot, take these statements seriously," Information Minister Sheik Saud Nasser al-Sabah told reporters. "We will believe them when we see them. . . . We want to see facts taking place on the ground corroborated by satellite and intelligence."

Iraq's renewed threat to Kuwait came after it failed to get the United Nations to fix a date for when the U.N. Security Council would consider lifting the crushing sanctions, which, Iraq

complains, have brought widespread suffering to its people.

Iraq had hoped that when U.N. weapons inspectors installed a long-term system for checking Iraqi weaponry, the United Nations would fix a six-month test period. At the end of that period, the Iraqis hoped they would see an easing of sanctions.

U.S. opposition

But although France and Russia supported the six-month period, the United States and Britain opposed it, and Rolf Ekeus, chairman of the U.N. Special Commission in charge of dismantling Iraq's most dangerous weapons, did not set a fixed period.

Some U.S. officials oppose any easing of sanctions as long as Saddam Hussein remains in power. They note that, even if Iraq was in technical compliance with U.N. aims to dismantle all its weapons of mass destruction, it clearly hasn't abandoned hostile intentions toward its neighbors.

U.S. intelligence agencies are concerned that Iraq may be hiding Scud missiles, chemical weapons and a biological warfare program, although there were no such signs in its latest buildup on the Kuwaiti border. CIA Director R. James Woolsey Jr. has warned that Iraq is building underground shelters and tunnels to produce and store weapons of mass destruction.

Iraq has still refused to recognize Kuwait's sovereignty or to agree to the emirate's border. Its latest threat to Kuwait showed that neither the U.N. effort to dismantle Iraq's weaponry nor four years of sanctions have eliminated Iraq as a regional threat. Even it chafed under sanctions, Iraq rebuilt a substantial military force that, at the least, could have trampled Kuwait's border and begun to damage the oil-rich emirate before being turned back.

At the end of the Persian Gulf war in 1991, U.S. officials had hopes of building a militarily strong regional coalition of states to assume a significant role in the area's defense.

But countries in the region remain divided and heavily dependent on a large presence of American forces.

Administration officials acknowledged yesterday that Mr. Clinton could not stage a huge response repeatedly without soaking the Treasury and weakening U.S. military preparedness elsewhere.

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