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  •   Clinton Warns Iraq, OK's Gulf Buildup

    An SH-60 helicopter assigned to Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron Seven (HS-7) hovers off the bow of the Enterprise. (File Photo — REUTERS)
    By Bradley Graham & John M. Goshko
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Thursday, November 12, 1998; Page A1

    President Clinton declared yesterday that the United States "must be prepared to act" forcefully to end Iraq's defiance of the United Nations and authorized a new buildup of military forces in the Persian Gulf, as U.N. officials evacuated most weapons inspectors and relief personnel from Baghdad.

    The Pentagon ordered 129 additional land-based warplanes and 3,000 more Army soldiers to the region, one day after accelerating deployment of an aircraft carrier and Marine amphibious group. The extra forces constitute roughly a doubling of U.S. military strength in the gulf region and come close to the enormous firepower massed there during the previous armed confrontation with Iraq last winter.

    The timing of any possible U.S. airstrikes remained unclear. Defense officials said it would take up to two weeks for all the additional forces to reach the gulf. But Clinton, who plans to leave Saturday for a meeting in Malaysia of Asian and Pacific Rim nations, retains the option of ordering an attack before the full complement of forces is in place, they said.

    As the likelihood of military action appeared to mount, more than 100 weapons inspectors working for the U.N. Special Commission (UNSCOM) left Baghdad for Bahrain in a hastily assembled convoy of buses, jeeps and trucks. UNSCOM's executive director, Richard Butler, said in New York that he had decided to pull the inspectors out as "a precautionary measure" after conferring Tuesday night with A. Peter Burleigh, acting U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

    The United Nations also withdrew to Jordan 170 employees monitoring distribution of relief supplies. Saying they hoped the reduction in relief work would be temporary, U.N. officials added that they were leaving 40 people in Baghdad, including Secretary General Kofi Annan's personal envoy, Prakash Shah, and keeping another 231 monitors working in Iraq's breakaway Kurdish provinces.

    The State Department authorized the withdrawal of most government personnel and all dependents from embassies in Kuwait and Israel. The department also recommended that private U.S. citizens in both countries consider leaving. It noted that while the possibility of Iraq launching chemical or biological weapons against neighboring states was remote, "it cannot be excluded."

    Addressing a Veterans Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, Clinton offered his most extensive public argument for a possible attack since Iraqi President Saddam Hussein announced an end to cooperation with U.N. weapons inspectors on Oct. 31.

    "A failure to respond could embolden Saddam to act recklessly, signaling to him that he can, with impunity, develop these weapons of mass destruction or threaten his neighbors," the president said. ". . . And it would permanently damage the credibility of the United Nations Security Council to act as a force for promoting international peace and security.

    "We continue to hope -- indeed, pray -- that Saddam will comply, but we must be prepared to act if he does not," Clinton added.

    While some administration officials had hoped initially to make do with the substantial forces already in the gulf and avoid the cost and disruption of another sizable buildup, defense officials said the added weapons and troops were being sent to broaden the choices for military action.

    "It increases the options available to the president and increases his flexibility to choose," said Pentagon spokesman Kenneth H. Bacon.

    Defense officials said Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, the top commander of U.S. forces in the gulf region, had recommended the buildup to ensure sufficient firepower, not only to cover all planned targets but also to deal defensively with the possibility that Iraqi forces might attempt a retaliatory assault on Kuwait. The 3,000 extra Army troops given deployment orders yesterday are being sent to Kuwait to join a battalion of soldiers already there, providing a brigade-strength ground force. The Pentagon also is dispatching additional Patriot anti-missile units to guard against Iraqi Scuds used with some effect during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

    Asked if the buildup was in any way a delaying tactic to buy time for a possible diplomatic solution, several senior defense officials insisted the administration had no interest in prolonging the crisis.

    Questioned about why Clinton had waited 11 days since the crisis broke to order new deployments, Bacon said: "These decisions are very difficult, and it takes a while to sort through what's the right course to take and the right number of options to give the president, and then for the president to decide what range of options he wants available to exercise."

    Clinton, in his speech, outlined the persistent U.S. efforts since the war to block renewed Iraqi development of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons by enforcing compliance with U.N. resolutions and maintaining tough economic sanctions. Since August, when Iraq moved to restrict the activities of UNSCOM weapons inspectors, Clinton said the United States had "gone the extra mile to obtain compliance by peaceful means," working with the U.N. Security Council.

    "Now, if Saddam Hussein is really serious about wanting sanctions lifted, there is an easy way to demonstrate that: Let UNSCOM do its job without interference; fully comply," Clinton said.

    "But if the inspectors are not permitted to visit suspect sites or monitor compliance at known production facilities, they may as well be in Baltimore, not Baghdad," the president added. "That would open a window of opportunity for Iraq to rebuild its arsenal of weapons and delivery systems in months -- I say again, in months -- not years."

    The additional warplanes ordered to the gulf yesterday include 12 B-52 bombers armed with air-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles, six B-1 heavy bombers and 12 F-117A radar-evading stealth fighters. The package also includes F-15, F-16 and F/A-18 attack jets along with refueling planes and other support aircraft and helicopters.

    Pentagon officials declined to say where the new aircraft would be based except to announce that the B-52s would go to the British base on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia. The F-117s are expected to go to Kuwait, where the planes have been based in recent confrontations with Iraq.

    Annan, who announced that he was breaking off a trip to Africa to return to U.N. headquarters by midday today, issued an appeal for Iraq to resume cooperation with the inspections as the only way to achieve an eventual end to the sanctions.

    The 15-nation Security Council expressed its "full support" for Annan's appeal and said it would consult further with him after he returns to New York. But in contrast to last February, when the secretary general staved off an imminent U.S.-Iraqi military clash by flying to Baghdad and negotiating a last-minute compromise, sources at the United Nations said yesterday they saw virtually no chance of something like that happening again.

    The council convened a closed-door meeting on Iraq yesterday to discuss the evacuation of U.N. personnel from Iraq and to hear a complaint by Russia that Butler had ordered his inspectors out of Iraq without first consulting the council, according to sources.

    In the past, three of the council's five permanent members -- Russia, France and China -- have advocated greater flexibility toward Iraq and have strongly opposed the idea of military action.

    France, apparently fed up with Iraq's recalcitrance, has registered only token opposition to a military option during the current crisis. But Russia, whose prime minister, Yevgeny Primakov, has a long-standing close relationship with Saddam Hussein, has continued to argue vehemently against using force.

    Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said yesterday in Moscow: "Any use of force would not only render the situation in the gulf more difficult, but there would be far-reaching consequences across the whole of the Middle East. Only a political solution to the crisis is possible."

    While Iraq seems more isolated internationally than during past confrontations, there was no sign yesterday of a retreat by Baghdad. Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz sent a letter to Annan saying that "in the light of the American threats to launch a military action," UNSCOM's withdrawal "fully proves once again that [it] acts in accordance with the orders of the government of the United States and that it coordinates its actions with it."

    Graham reported from Washington, Goshko from the United Nations.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post

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