Saudi Arabian and Kuwaiti leaders who met members of Congress last week were "more hawkish" than Bush administration officials about the prospect of war with Iraq if a trade embargo fails to dislodge Iraqi occupation troops from Kuwait, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin (D-Wis.) said yesterday.
Aspin's assessment was shared by several other members of a congressional delegation that met with Saudi Arabia's King Fahd and senior officials in the Saudi, Kuwaiti and Bahraini governments.
In addition, Aspin said, several senior Saudi officials believe that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein must be toppled in any military confrontation if the region is to be safe from his military power and weapons of mass destruction.
The congressional delegation's assessment suggests that the Saudi monarch, who invited a massive deployment of U.S. and multinational forces to defend his kingdom last month, is more prepared to pursue a military option than has been reported.
In public statements, Saudi officials have avoided reference to offensive military operations against Iraq and have emphasized the need to support the U.N. trade embargo as the best way to force 160,000 Iraqi troops out of Kuwait.
In the last two weeks, a senior Saudi military official and Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, the defense minister, have reiterated their position that U.S. forces in the kingdom are there solely for defensive purposes.
Meetings between the members of Congress and Arab heads of state also revealed deep and bitter recriminations between Jordan's King Hussein and the traditionally moderate Arab bloc that he has helped to shape and lead for three decades.
Saudi officials were said to be uniformly "vicious" in their remarks about Hussein, whose attempt to tour Persian Gulf capitals earlier this month was aborted when most governments let it be known that he would not be welcome. These hardened attitudes have alarmed Bush administration officials, who are seeking Arab financial assistance for the king to ensure Jordan's support for the U.N. embargo.
In his meeting with the congressional delegation, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak accused King Hussein of participating in a conspiracy with Iraq and Yemen to carve up the Arabian Peninsula, giving oil wealth to Iraq, fertile southern mountains to Yemen and reinstalling the Hashemite throne lost by King Hussein's great grandfather in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.
Mubarak also told the delegation that Saddam had telephoned him 48 hours before invading Kuwait and offered $25 million to buy wheat for the Egyptian people and another $25 million Oct. 1. Mubarak suggested that the phone call was an attempt by Saddam to buy Egypt's acquiescence on the eve of the invasion.
Speaking to a group of Middle East specialists, Aspin yesterday said, "I think the Saudis, the Kuwaitis and the Bahrainis are more hawkish than we are."
Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), also a member of the delegation, said, "They all feel that we can't have an everlasting stalemate. If the embargo doesn't work, force will have to be used."
Rep. Dave McCurdy (D-Okla.) added, "I got the distinct impression that sanctions alone would not be enough." Meeting with President Bush after their return, several of the members conveyed these impressions. "I told the president in our meeting that I didn't discern any long-term patience on the part of the Saudis, Kuwaitis or Bahrainis," McCurdy said.
After the bulk of U.S. forces and their heavy tanks, artillery and other armor reach Saudi Arabia in mid-October, "that seems like the deadline time," McCurdy said. "We'll have run the gamut diplomatically . . . . "
Cranston said Mubarak was more optimistic that the embargo can force Saddam to capitulate in one to three months. King Fahd, he added, wanted to give the embargo some time while U.S. and multinational forces continue to build strength.
"After that," he added, "it's hard to interpret exactly what they would like us to do. They are reluctant to have us launch an offensive from their soil, but I don't think they have forbidden it. They are asking to be consulted."
Cranston noted that Fahd has suggested publicly that the United States should go to the United Nations at the appropriate time for some kind of "political cover" for military action if the embargo bogs down. "Everybody hopes the embargo will work," Cranston said. "The Saudis know if it comes to war, they will suffer along with everybody else. Some blows will be aimed at them. The oil fields may be destroyed, Riyadh damaged by missiles. I don't think they are ready at this point, but they are not too optimistic about the blockade working."