AMMAN, JORDAN, OCT. 8 -- Two commanders of Arab forces deployed in the Persian Gulf as part of a multinational military force have reaffirmed on successive days that their troops would not be used as part of an offensive strike against Iraq.
Maj. Gen. Mohammed Ali Bilal, the commander of Egyptian forces in the gulf region, was quoted today as saying that the 14,000 Egyptian troops sent to the gulf following Iraq's Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait were there only to assist in the defense of Saudi Arabia and other nations in the region.
His comments in the Saudi newspaper al-Khaleej echoed similar cautions voiced Sunday in the same newspaper by the commander of forces that Syria has sent to Saudi Arabia, Maj. Gen. Ali Habib.
"Our main task is to reinforce Saudi defense capabilities and protect its borders against any aggression," Bilal told al-Khaleej. "The Egyptian forces in Saudi Arabia would not participate in any offensive."
The officially declared mission of the U.S.-led forces in Saudi Arabia is to defend the kingdom from Iraqi attack, and Arab leaders made clear when dispatching their forces that they would follow the same policy. But some Saudi, Kuwaiti and U.S. officials have argued in recent weeks that if United Nations sanctions fail to drive the Iraqis from Kuwait, the multinational forces in Saudi Arabia should launch an attack.
Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, meanwhile, said that he has warned Kuwait's exiled leaders against any peace settlement that conceded the islands of Bubiyan and Warba to Iraq.
The two Kuwaiti islands, which control access to the Shatt al Arab waterway at the head of the Persian Gulf, have long been sought by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to ensure access to the gulf, one of the issues at stake in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.
"If, to reach a settlement, you accept ceding the island of Bubiyan to the Iraqis, we will be absolutely opposed, even to a minimal change of the existing frontiers," Rafsanjani said in an interview with the French newspaper Le Monde. "If Kuwait were to go ahead and cede Bubiyan to Saddam all the same, we would act within our means to stop it."
The Iranian president also said that his country is abiding by the U.N. Security Council's economic embargo against Iraq. Since invading Kuwait, Saddam's government has renewed diplomatic relations with its former enemy and pulled back from occupied Iranian territory in what Western observers interpreted as an attempt to entice Tehran into helping break the embargo.
U.S., British and Australian naval vessels enforcing the embargo halted an Iraqi ship, the Wasitti, for an inspection at the other end of the gulf today.
The freighter was allowed to proceed after Royal Marines and a U.S. Coast Guard team boarded it and found nothing aboard that violated the U.N. embargo. A U.S. Navy spokesman in Bahrain said the USS Reasoner, HMS Battleaxe and AHMS Adelaide fired shots across the Wasitti's bow to force it to halt and allow the inspectors aboard.
In Kuwait, Iraqi authorities, citing technical reasons, closed Kuwait's international airport to civilian traffic today and ordered a U.S. evacuation flight scheduled to arrive there Wednesday to land instead at the Iraqi port of Basra.
The U.S. evacuation flight, a chartered Iraqi Airways Boeing 747, was to carry women, children and others eligible to leave from Kuwait to London via Baghdad. It is the first such U.S.-chartered flight since Sept. 21. A U.S. diplomat in Baghdad told reporters Iraqi authorities said the plane now will have to take off from Basra, north of the border.
The Kuwaiti closure, which primarily affected Iraqi Airways' half-dozen daily flights between Baghdad and Kuwait, was described to reporters in the Iraqi capital as a temporary measure. It was not further explained, but recent reports from Kuwait have said the Iraqi army is building up antiaircraft and ground defenses there and linking roads, water lines and other infrastructure to Iraqi networks.
Iraqi Embassy officials in Amman told Arabs who sought permits for travel by car to Kuwait that the border has been closed temporarily to non-Iraqis. Asked why, they told questioners, "Ask Bush."
Tehran announced that more than 5,000 Kuwaitis have sought refuge in Iran in recent days, apparently with the acquiescence of Iraqi officials directing the occupation of Kuwait.
The official Islamic Republic News Agency reported that the Kuwaitis, who said they refused to abide by an order to carry Iraqi national identity cards, crossed from Kuwait through Iraq territory in cars and small buses.
Iraqi authorities also appear to have loosened restrictions on Kuwaitis leaving for Saudi Arabia. Hundreds of refugees lined up over the weekend at the Khafji border crossing, telling reporters there of nighttime sweeps by Iraqi soldiers hunting down members of the Kuwaiti resistance.
In Egypt, the official Middle East News Agency said the government has arrested five Palestinians described as followers of Sabri Banna, an international terrorist known as Abu Nidal, who it said entered Egypt with weapons and explosives with the intention of sabotage. Fifteen Palestinians and Iraqis were reported detained last week.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has warned that terrorists allied with Iraq were planning attacks in Egypt in retaliation for Egypt's opposition to Iraq and Cairo's dispatch of troops to Saudi Arabia.