Iraqi Attack Raises U.S. 'Concern'By Bradley Graham and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, September 1 1996; Page A01
Iraqi President Saddam Hussein defied U.S. warnings yesterday and sent armored columns into a northern Kurdish enclave, overrunning the city of Irbil and triggering a new confrontation with the United States and its allies.
President Clinton voiced "grave concern" about the Iraqi thrust, put U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf region on "high alert" and ordered unspecified reinforcements. But the United States took no military action yesterday against Iraq, and administration officials said they were reviewing options and deliberating with allies about how to respond.
Late yesterday, a Baghdad government spokesman announced Iraqi forces would withdraw and "return to former positions in a very short period" after installing new authorities in Irbil.
"Given the provocations of Iraq, we don't put a lot of credibility in this," said White House press secretary Michael McCurry. "It's not what they say, it's what they do."
Iraq's swift assault took Saddam over a line the United States had insisted he not cross and propelled his army, for the first time since 1991, into an area of Iraq populated mainly by 3.5 million Kurds whom U.S.-led forces are pledged to assist. But unlike five years ago, when Saddam's troops stormed into northern Iraq to put down a united Kurdish rebellion, yesterday's assault came in the more complex context of a divided Kurdish community and attempts by Iraq and Iran to exploit the split.
Iraq claimed it had invaded at the invitation of Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani, who has been feuding for control with archrival Jalal Talabani, whose group recently received help from Iran. Forces loyal to Barzani were widely reported to have participated with Saddam's troops in taking Irbil, a Talabani stronghold.
"If there's any blame for what happened, some of it rests with the power struggle among the Kurds," said a U.S. official familiar with administration deliberations. "We've tried to get the Kurds to stay together, but one got in bed with Saddam, the other with Iran."
Nonetheless, administration officials said the United States has an interest in doing something to counter Saddam's aggression.
"There is a compelling interest which arises from the fact that one more time Saddam Hussein has shown he's prepared to use force to change the status quo and to advance his own agenda," said a senior administration official in Washington. "In this case, he's used it against his own people. This is a dangerous man, and therefore this is a serious development."
Iraq warned the United States early today to keep out of its Kurdish north, vowing to turn the area into another Vietnam if Washington intervened.
"The Iraqi people, in the forefront Iraqi Kurds, are ready to provide an example that will inevitably remind the Americans of the Vietnam complex," the government newspaper al-Jumhouriya declared in a front-page editorial.
A senior administration official traveling with Clinton, who was campaigning in Kentucky and Tennessee, said the president had received a list of recommended diplomatic and military options from his staff.
"I expect to see over the course of coming days a fairly extensive diplomatic effort as the international community understands and assesses what is happening," the official said. Asked whether military action was imminent, the official said, "Not at all."
Republican presidential candidate Robert J. Dole acknowledged "a complicated situation," but said Clinton should block the impending resumption of Iraqi oil sales. The U.N. Security Council recently approved sale of $1 billion worth of Iraqi oil every 90 days, provided the funds go into a U.N. escrow account to feed the Kurds and other Iraqis. Dole called relaxation of the ban on oil sales "premature and ill-advised." Accounts from eyewitnesses in Irbil described heavy shelling of the city, numerous casualties and fleeing residents. Three armored divisions of more than 30,000 soldiers from Iraq's Republican Guard spearheaded the assault.
"Shelling has been continuous for about five-and-a-half hours. They are not distinguishing between military and civilian areas," Ahmed Allawi of the opposition Iraqi National Congress told the Reuter news service from Irbil. "There are too many fires and too much smoke."
As tanks and armored vehicles rolled into the city, there were reports of house-to-house searches and atrocities.
"They're pulling people from their homes and executing them," said Kathryn Porter, president of the Human Rights Alliance, who spoke by phone with Talabani's wife in Irbil yesterday. She said city residents fear that if they try to flee, Iraqi forces will kill them.
By evening, firing had become only sporadic, and U.S. officials said Iraqi forces controlled all routes in and out of Irbil, whose population once numbered about 800,000.
As for Saddam's next move, a senior administration official said "there was no hard information whether or not this is a first step in a broader campaign."
Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan appealed for foreign intervention to prevent a "humanitarian catastrophe." The group said the attack could be a prelude to revival of the Iraqi government's "genocidal war" against the Kurds, who are seeking independence from Baghdad.
Clinton, speaking at a stop on a campaign bus tour in Tennessee, said, "It is premature at this time, and I want to emphasize that, entirely premature to speculate on any response we might have. But we are prepared to deal with these developments."
The Iraqi assault was mounted by the largest military force Saddam has arrayed against the Kurds since early 1991 when, in the wake of his loss of Kuwait to U.S.-led coalition forces, he sent troops north to put down a Kurdish rebellion.
Irbil lies about 12 miles north of the 36th parallel, the line that Iraqi military aircraft have been barred by allied forces from crossing since the 1991 episode. U.S., British and French warplanes are based in southern Turkey under Operation Provide Comfort to enforce the "no-fly" zone.
U.S. officials yesterday said there was no evidence Iraqi aircraft had violated the zone, although there were reports of some helicopter activity around the 36th parallel. The United States and its allies have never barred Iraqi ground forces from entering Kurdish territory.
But U.S. officials said Iraq's seizure of Irbil violated U.N. Resolution 688, adopted in April 1991, which condemned Saddam's suppression of the Kurds and demanded the Iraqi leader respect the human and political rights of all his country's citizens. The resolution served as the basis for establishment of the no-fly zone not only in the north but also one in the south, below the 32nd parallel, populated by a substantial number of Shiite Muslims hostile to Saddam.
"We've used the human rights aspect in the past as a basis for action," explained an administration official. "It isn't particularly strong as a legal basis but it's enough."
At the same time, U.S. officials have had a somewhat more difficult time making the case with allies to confront Saddam over human rights abuses than over his compliance with U.N. resolutions mandating destruction of weapons of mass destruction.
Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who cut short a California vacation yesterday to return to Washington, was reported to be consulting U.S. allies in the region about a united response. A senior administration official said it was possible Clinton would make some telephone calls to foreign officials as well, but probably not before today.
Christopher wrote Turkish Foreign Minister Tansu Ciller requesting Ankara's intervention to restore calm. Turkey, which borders Iraq, also has a large restive Kurdish population and is one of the few countries that has maintained dialogue with Baghdad.
Turkey said yesterday, in a foreign ministry statement, that it was taking measures to prevent a repeat of 1991, when as many as 2 million Iraqi Kurds fled into Turkey.
Members of Barzani's Kurdish Democratic Party reported Iranian troops entered northern Iraq yesterday morning, occupying an area 25 miles deep. But U.S. officials said they had no confirmation of Iranian movement across the border into Iraq or even indications of any significant buildup of Iranian forces in response to Iraq's assault on Irbil.
Talabani told Reuter by telephone from Irbil that he had warned Washington three days in advance that the Iraqi forces were prepared to attack the city.
"The Americans promised to attack them [the Iraqis]. They did not act decisively," the Kurdish leader said. In a radio broadcast later, Talabani expressed confidence the United States and other Western allies "will not abandon our people and that they will soon deal a lethal blow to the aggressors in Baghdad."
A senior U.S. official denied that Talabani was given any assurances of military intervention. Asked if the administration had reacted too slowly in trying to head off the Iraqi attack, the official said Washington had not been sure at first what to make of the troop movements, particularly their relationship to recent fighting between Kurdish factions.
Talabani and Barzani had agreed to peace talks under U.S. auspices in London last week, leading Washington officials to believe a settlement among the warring factions was possible.
But when the buildup started appearing significant last week, the official said, the United States warned Iraq through U.N. channels and allied governments not to attempt any suppression of the Kurdish minority.
The Iraqi government in Baghdad characterized the move into Irbil as an act of "support and military aid" for Barzani's Kurdish Democratic Party in its fight against Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. In a statement carried by the official Iraqi News Agency, Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz said Iraq's military intervention was in response to a written plea from Barzani to Saddam, dated Aug. 22, seeking support against attacks by Talabani and Iran.
"We decided to launch a limited military operation in defense of our sovereignty, our people and their properties," Aziz said. He railed against U.S., British and French forces for bringing "to the Kurds nothing but death, destruction, anarchy and the loss of opportunities for development and decent living."
Clinton continued to monitor developments as his campaign bus tour rolled through Kentucky and Tennessee yesterday. But there appeared to be considerable confusion early in the day about what was happening around Irbil as administration officials tried to sort out conflicting reports about military actions there.
U.S. officials also were forced to grapple with the fact that the fighting involved Kurdish forces on both sides, one of them working with Iraqi forces.
The challenge for Clinton was simpler two years ago when Saddam sent Republican Guard divisions south toward positions from which they threatened to reinvade Kuwait. Then, the United States announced it was dispatching tens of thousands of fresh ground troops to the gulf, and Saddam quickly withdrew his forces. Now, the Iraqi leader already has attacked and apparently achieved his objective.
As possible reinforcements for the roughly 200 warplanes and 21 ships already in the Persian Gulf region, the Pentagon has alerted air and naval forces in the United States to prepare for deployment.
A fleet of about three dozen Air Force jet fighters and support aircraft from bases in Virginia, South Carolina and North Carolina, plus four B-52 bombers, were notified to be ready to move on short notice, defense officials said. The aircraft carrier USS Enterprise in the eastern Mediterranean has been told to be ready to steam to the Red Sea; another carrier, the USS Carl Vinson, is in the Arabian Sea, close enough to Iraq to strike.
The Pentagon also told a Marine Amphibious Ready Group of seaborne troops to be ready in case called upon. One such group of Marines already is afloat in the Arabian Sea.
Clinton plans to cut short his weekend of campaigning and return to Washington late Monday, a day ahead of schedule. But officials said the change in plans had nothing to do with the military situation in Iraq. A senior official traveling with Clinton said the president is enjoying the bus tour, and the presidential campaign is important to the country.
"We're not going to give Saddam Hussein the satisfaction of interfering with that process," he said.
Graham reported from Washington, Balz was traveling with Clinton. Staff writer John F. Harris, also with Clinton, contributed to this report.