Carrier, Marines Rushed To Gulf
By Barton Gellman and Bradley Graham
While shunning what they now see as excessive public threats aimed at Iraq last winter, during the most recent armed confrontation with Baghdad, senior administration officials said they still hope the orchestration of warnings and force movements will impel Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to reverse his decisions of Aug. 5 and Oct. 31 to halt all work by United Nations arms inspectors.
The administration did not commit itself yesterday to an expensive buildup of forces that would rival last winter's $1.4 billion deployment to the Persian Gulf. The USS Enterprise carrier battle group and USS Belleau Wood amphibious group, ordered to steam faster to the region, are early replacements for warships already on station. When they arrive on Nov. 23 and Nov. 26, the administration will have to decide whether to leave the USS Eisenhower and USS Essex groups in place -- doubling the naval power on hand -- or to allow them to return to home ports as scheduled. Defense officials said a third carrier, the USS Carl Vinson, was likely to replace the Eisenhower if Clinton decides to keep two in the region.
The Air Force, officials said, is standing by to deploy an Air Expeditionary Force of land-based warplanes to Bahrain or Kuwait. Heavy B-52 bombers and stealthy F-117A strike planes could move quickly into place but have not been ordered to do so.
Public statements and background interviews left ambiguous what the Clinton administration would regard as acceptable terms of Iraq's reversal, leaving some room for maneuver should Iraq issue fresh promises of compliance with U.N. Security Council demands. National Security Council spokesman David Leavy said "it's not enough for him to say so, it's enough for him to do it," but did not define what action would be sufficient to end the crisis.
Cohen, emerging from President Clinton's third meeting in a week on Iraq, made two points the administration had not made officially until yesterday. He said, "The U.N.'s credibility is on the line, and I think U.S. credibility as well, in terms of simply allowing [Saddam Hussein] to flout . . . his obligations." Cohen also made the first intimations of deadline after more than a week of avoiding one.
"I think that we've all indicated that time is running out on this, that it can't go on forever, that diplomacy always should have every opportunity to dance, but at some point a dance has a beginning and an end," Cohen said.
While the aims of threatening force were clear -- "to get Saddam to back down," as one British diplomat said -- the aims of using it were murkier, at least in public statements. One official involved in the crisis management, which has brought the national security cabinet together every day since last weekend, said the decision-makers wanted to "walk their way through" basic questions of whether to change U.S. objectives "from containment to outwardly supporting an overthrow" of Saddam Hussein.
In public remarks in Washington, Maj. Gen. Fahad Al Amir, deputy chief of Kuwait's armed services, said U.S. military strikes should target "Saddam Hussein and his military machine" with the objective of toppling the regime. In an interview, he added that the targets should include "the ring close to Saddam which maintains his survival."
Kuwait, which since the 1990 invasion by Iraq has been far more hostile in public than its gulf neighbors, favors establishment of a wide enclave in southern Iraq, akin to one already in the north, in which Iraqi ground forces would be prohibited and Shiite rebels encouraged to actively oppose the regime.
"In the south, the revolution is there," Al Amir said. "It's underground. It's ready."
Administration officials said that idea, promoted in Washington by former defense undersecretary Paul Wolfowitz and retired Army Gen. Wayne Downing, among others, is not under serious consideration. But they said the targets of any military strike would include the instruments by which Saddam Hussein maintains himself in power.
"Any time we can weaken Saddam, that is a good thing, and it does not require a complete overthrow plan to make it worthwhile," said one administration official.
Asked about fears last winter that Iraq's president would arise from the ashes of any bombing to proclaim his continued defiance, another official said, "I think there's a feeling that that's a less likely outcome, that there would be even more ashes this time."
Cohen and other officials said yesterday's deployments did not signal any intention to await the arrival of the new forces before using them.
"We could take a phased approach, hitting him essentially with what we've got there and also starting the flow of forces that would allow additional options within days of the first hit," one official said.
In addition to yesterday's announced moves, the Pentagon last weekend quietly ordered the guided missile cruiser USS Anzio to sail from the Mediterranean to the gulf. The Anzio's arrival has brought to eight the number of warships armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles, which likely would spearhead any U.S. attack. The United States has 173 Air Force and Navy warplanes and 23 ships in the gulf region.
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