Secretary of State James A. Baker III told Congress yesterday the United States and Arab nations should establish a new "regional security structure" for the Persian Gulf similar to the post-war Atlantic Alliance to "contain" and "roll back" Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.
In testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Baker said that even if Iraq withdraws from Kuwait there should be a long-term effort to restrict Saddam's "aggressive tendencies" and that such an effort could require a sustained U.S. naval presence in the region. He suggested this concept of a gulf regional security organization could resemble the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the post-World War II effort led by the United States in Western Europe to contain Soviet communism.
"There was no question about the aggressive Joseph Stalin, and we developed a regional . . . security strategy that worked," Baker said. "And I don't doubt for one minute that we can do it here."
Baker added that the administration is not interested in any negotiations with Saddam until Iraq pulls out of Kuwait and that Saddam has "shown no signs" of being serious about a diplomatic solution.
Also yesterday, the U.S. Navy boarded and commandeered the first Iraqi vessel that tried to run the multinational naval blockade with a load of tea bound for the Iraqi port of Basra. No shots were fired, and the ship, under the command of a 14-member boarding party from the guided missile destroyer USS Goldsborough, was diverted to the Omani port of Muscat.
Two planeloads of Western women and children flew out of Iraq, and busloads of German and British citizens were evacuated from occupied Kuwait in arduous overland convoys to Baghdad.
Also yesterday, the Kremlin called for fresh United Nations efforts to resolve the crisis in the gulf, including the rapid convening of a Middle East peace conference to settle the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The administration announced that President Bush will ask Congress to forgive Egypt's $7 billion debt to the United States for military aid. White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater said the gesture was in response to Egypt's "leadership" in the gulf crisis. Baker said the debt "has basically been unrepayable" because of Egypt's troubled economy. Fitzwater said the move would add $750 million to the current federal budget deficit.
House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) expressed reservations at the move, saying, "That comes off the wall without our prior knowledge." He said it "may be a little premature for us to say we're going to forgive this one big item." Michel said he would "like to have a full accounting of what is our status with other countries around the globe" before he takes a position on the Egyptian debt.
Israeli Finance Minister Yitzhak Modai said if Congress approves Bush's request to forgive the debt to Egypt, Israel will demand most of its $4.6 billion debt from previous arms sales also be erased. Fitzwater said the United States would "entertain" forgiveness for other nations besides Egypt.
The debt announcement came as Treasury Secretary Nicholas F. Brady began a European and Asian tour to drum up billions of dollars in international assistance for the campaign against Saddam. Brady went first to France and planned later visits to Great Britian, Japan and South Korea. Baker is to depart today for the Middle East in a related mission before joining Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in Helsinki this weekend.
In his testimony yesterday, Baker said the State Department has put Iraq back on the list of states that sponsor terrorism. Iraq was taken off the list in 1982, amid much controversy, when the United States was seeking closer ties with Saddam to counter Iran in the region; at that time, some terrorist groups were expelled from Baghdad. U.S. officials believe a number of international terrorists have made their way to Baghdad since the invasion of Kuwait.
Baker said the action to return Iraq to the list of terrorist states was taken following statements by Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz "that Iraq was free of any moral obligations to proscribe acts of terrorism against Americans, British and French interests."
Administration officials said the action was approved over the weekend by Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger. It was under consideration before the Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait, officials said, but the taking of Americans and other foreigners hostage tipped the balance. Officials said the decision will have little practical impact, however, because of the international economic sanctions and arms embargo already in place against Iraq. However, if the Kuwait crisis is resolved, Iraq could not be removed from the list without a presidential decision.
Other nations on the list are Iran, Libya, Syria, Cuba, North Korea and Yemen. Since the formation of a new government there, the status of Yemen has been under review, officials said.
In his testimony, Baker sought to answer criticism that the United States has not articulated its long-term objectives in the Persian Gulf crisis and that the administration has failed to outline the stakes to the American people.
Baker said the crisis is a "political test of how the post-Cold War world will work," an era "in which ethnic and sectarian identities could easily breed new violence and new conflict" and "threats could erupt as misguided leaders are tempted to assert regional dominance long before the ground rules of a new order can be accepted." He added, "The current crisis is a first opportunity to limit such dangers."
He also noted the dangers of a wider conflict in the Middle East and said "we must help demonstrate that Saddam Hussein's violent way is an anachronism, rather than the wave of the future."
Some members of Congress have questioned whether U.S. soldiers and sailors should be put at risk in an action some characterize as a defense of cheap gasoline. Baker, who estimated the buildup there will cost $6 billion by the end of the year, said, "We're not there in order to keep the price of gasoline low." Instead, he sought to define the issue in terms of global security. "It is . . . about a dictator, who, acting alone and unchallenged, could strangle the global economic order, determining by fiat whether we all enter a recession or even the darkness of a depression." He noted that the emerging democracies of Eastern Europe and other developing countries would be particularly hard hit by an energy crisis.
Baker reiterated Bush's four objectives in the gulf: complete and unconditional withdrawal of Iraqi troops, restoration of the "legitimate" government of Kuwait, protection of Americans and stability in the region. Asked whether the United States is trying to overthrow Saddam, Baker said this goal "is not one of those stated objectives." But he added, "It would not make us terribly unhappy if the people of Iraq decided they wanted a new leader."
He said Bush's goals include restoration of the emir of Kuwait and the government "as it existed on the date of the invasion."
Baker rejected suggestions that Saddam be offered a face-saving exit from Kuwait. "We don't buy this idea that some are pushing today that you've got to find a way to give Saddam Hussein a face-saving way out, give him something that would, in effect, reward him for his aggression," Baker said. "We think that's totally unprincipled."
Baker did not offer details about the concept of a new regional security structure. But he said resolution of the crisis "should also become a springboard for a sustained international effort to curb the proliferation of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles" in the region. Saddam has the Third World's largest stockpile of chemical weapons and is known to have been seeking nuclear arms.
Rep. Stephen J. Solarz (D-N.Y.) pressed Baker on whether it would be possible to eliminate Saddam's nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs "without destroying them" in a military strike. Baker, while cautioning that he did not want to rule out any option, said, "It's not possible to eliminate them without destroying them." However, he added, it might be possible to create a "security structure that would make it so clearly to the detriment" of Saddam to use such weapons "that there would be very little risk that they would be used."
Baker praised the cooperation of "an enlightened Soviet leadership" in the gulf crisis, and, referring to "the new thinkers and reformers in the Soviet Union," said that "partnership is replacing conflict in that relationship." Questioned about the 193 Soviet military advisers who reportedly remain in Iraq, Baker said there was some uncertainty about whether they were free to leave. But if they are, he added, it is "inappropriate" for the Soviets to be providing any military aid to Baghdad.
The interception of the Iraqi vessel occurred at 6:30 a.m. local time in the Gulf of Oman when the USS Goldsborough hailed the small cargo ship Zanoobia, whose captain ignored orders to turn around or sail for a neutral port, Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams said.
Navy officials said they could not detail how the boarding party got aboard the Zanoobia, which refused to stop but which allowed the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard personnel to take over the ship without opposition. Yesterday's action marks the first forced boarding of an Iraqi vessel since Iraq ordered its commercial shipping fleet not to resist enforcement of the U.N. trade embargo against Iraq.
Also yesterday, the U.S. military's top commander in the Middle East denied a Washington Post report that a dispute exists between him and the Saudi government over who controls the decision to launch U.S. offensive military operations from Saudi Arabia. U.S. Army Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf said, "I absolutely have no disagreement whatsoever with any agreement that exists between Saudi Arabia and the United States." Schwarzkopf said he did not complain when Saudi commander Lt. Gen. Khalid bin Sultan told reporters last week that any decision to use U.S. forces deployed in the kingdom for offensive operations would have to be preceded by consultations between Bush and Saudi Arabia's King Fahd.
At a news conference last week, Schwarzkopf called the Saudi commander's statement "a great simplification of the arrangements that exist."
In a telephone interview yesterday, Schwarzkopf said, "Every agreement that has been reached between Saudi Arabia and the United States about anything was already run by me. I participated in the formulation of the agreement."
He said the initial details of the command and control of U.S. and Arab forces was forged when he and Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney visited King Fahd days after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. "There have been a million questions from everybody," said Schwarzkopf. "But, from our situation, not now nor has there ever been . . . any dispute about how it would work."
Staff writers Patrick E. Tyler, Ann Devroy and John E. Yang in Washington and Molly Moore in Saudi Arabia contributed to this report.