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Iraq Special Report

  2,200 Marines Sent to Gulf
Diplomatic Solution Still Sought

By Thomas W. Lippman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 6, 1998; Page A35

The United States is sending 2,200 Marines on warships to the Persian Gulf to strengthen its forces and possibly help evacuate civilians in the region in the event of armed conflict with Iraq, military officials said yesterday.

But even as the U.S. military buildup continued with the dispatch of the Marines and the arrival in the gulf of a third aircraft carrier, the USS Independence, President Clinton said several times yesterday that he would prefer a peaceful resolution of the standoff with Iraq.

As consultations continued in Baghdad, there were a few faint hints that a diplomatic solution might still be possible. "One can say that there are the first signs of movement," French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine said in a television interview yesterday. He said the Iraqis told a French envoy in Baghdad that eight so-called presidential sites that Iraq has put off-limits to U.N. weapons inspectors "could be either inspected or visited -- there is a discussion on the terms and on the practical consequences."

France, Turkey, the Arab League and Russia, which oppose the use of force against Iraq, have all sent representatives to Baghdad this week to press Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to allow the weapons inspection teams to resume their work unhindered, as the U.N. Security Council and the United States insist.

These talks are not negotiations and the foreign envoys are not speaking for the United States, State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said. He said reports of an Iraqi offer on inspections might indicate some movement, although similar reports have not come close to satisfying American demands.

"Number one, the diplomatic string is fraying," he said. "Number two, the latest proposals fall short. Number three, they could signal, however, Iraq's recognition that its position is untenable. If they do and [Saddam Hussein] allows full and unfettered access, then the diplomatic string will firm up."

Asked if the U.S. military deployments in the gulf mean armed action is inevitable, Clinton said, "No, no. that's up to Saddam Hussein. I do not want a conflict. . . . I want a diplomatic resolution of this." If the diplomacy underway in Iraq results in access to suspect sites by the international inspectors, Clinton said, and "if that assurance can be given in reasonable form that anyone with sound judgment would accept, then nothing is inevitable here."

Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the only major foreign leader to give unconditional endorsement to U.S. plans to strike Iraq militarily if necessary, stressed to reporters that Saddam Hussein is not to be trusted and his past behavior gives little reason to believe that he will yield.

If force is used, Clinton said, its purpose will not be to eliminate Saddam Hussein, as some members of Congress and some independent analysts have urged. He said that such an aim would go beyond a United Nations mandate to enforce sanctions, and that he would not deviate from an executive order issued in the 1970s by President Gerald R. Ford banning assassination of foreign leaders.

It appeared yesterday that the diplomats pressing their case with Iraq have at least several days, and possibly a few weeks, to deliver results that Washington and London consider credible.

Defense Secretary William S. Cohen left last night for a security conference in Germany that he will follow with visits to Saudi Arabia and other gulf states for talks about possible military action. The movement of the Marine contingent from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf would not be completed for at least 10 days, defense officials said.

A senior general at the Pentagon said that Gen. Anthony Zinni, the commander of U.S. forces in the gulf, had requested the Marines as a precaution in the event Saddam Hussein launches a counterattack in response to U.S. airstrikes. Their presence will bring the total number of U.S. troops in the region to more than 30,000.

"That response could take numerous twists," the general said. "One of them might be to literally try to move troops south again" into Kuwait or Saudi Arabia. "Or another might to try to put some of the cities in the region in harm's way using some kind of missiles.

"The Marines could help provide some mobile ground forces. And secondly, they provide the ability to evacuate non-combatants if necessary."

Vedrine said France will continue its effort to convince the Iraqis that "they have to accept the fact that the [U.N. Special] Commission has to be able to work and that in disarmament matters it isn't humiliating to allow an inspection commission to work. . . . We have to persevere, be tenacious and patient.

China publicly added its voice yesterday to the those who have publicly dissented from U.S. and British plans to use military force.

Foreign Minister Qian Qichen, speaking on television, said "China is extremely and definitely opposed to the use of military force because it will result in a tremendous amount of human casualties and create more turmoil in the region and even could cause new conflicts," he said. He added that he had conveyed this view in a telephone call to Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, the Associated Press reported from Beijing.

While acknowledging Washington's disagreement with Moscow, Beijing and other capitals over the possible use of force, Clinton and other officials glossed over yesterday reported remarks by Russian President Boris Yeltsin that military action could provoke a "world war."

"I doubt that would happen," Clinton said. "We had a good talk the other day, President Yeltsin and I did, and I know that he very much hopes that a violent confrontation can be avoided. So do I."

Rubin suggested in a State Department briefing that the Russian leader may have been responding to U.S. news reports that the Clinton administration was contemplating the use of nuclear weapons against Iraq's biological and chemical weapons sites.

"Those reports have no basis in fact," Rubin said. "The United States has no plans or intentions of using nuclear weapons."

On Capitol Hill, Senate leaders again put off action on a resolution urging Clinton to take tough action against Iraq "until we have all the facts and know what the circumstances are," as Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) put it yesterday.

While differences over wording of the resolution have largely been resolved, Daschle said, something might be said in debate of the measure that "invites retaliatory action" and "tremendous security problems" both in this country and abroad.

"At least for now, it really doesn't serve the country or serve our purposes by getting into a debate until we've had a chance to listen to Secretary Albright and until we know more clearly what the diplomatic effort may produce in the next day or so," he said. Albright did address Senate members late yesterday in a closed session.

Staff writers Helen Dewar and Bradley Graham contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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