U.S. troops in Gulf have sights on Iraq

The Associated Press

The United States sent troops and warships to the Persian Gulf on Saturday after Saddam Hussein, going to the brink again, sent tens of thousands of elite troops and hundreds of tanks toward the Kuwaiti border.

The Pentagon said no additional movement of Saddam's Republican Guards had been detected since Friday, when they were first reported. But mechanized Iraqi troops were less than an hour from Kuwait.

A highly placed Kuwaiti government source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the emirate began moving 15,000 troops, backed by tanks, to the border Saturday morning. Iraqi soldiers steamrolled Kuwaiti troops when Baghdad invaded the emirate four years ago.

U.S. officials reported Friday that 20,000 Republican Guards had moved closer to the border, bringing to 64,000 the total number of Iraqi troops in the area. Some 700 tanks were also positioned or headed there.

No one was taking any chances that the unpredictable Saddam might be embarking on another military adventure to try to quell discontent at home.

Amid the uncertainty over what his intentions were, Baghdad's government-run Al-Iraq newspaper warned on Saturday, without elaborating, that unless the sanctions are lifted, "the anger of the patient will erupt in order to compensate for the pains of this patience."

President Clinton warned Saddam on Saturday that it would be "a grave error for Iraq to repeat mistakes of the past or to misjudge either American will or American power."

Clinton dispatched the aircraft carrier USS George Washington with 60 to 80 jets from the Adriatic Sea to the Red Sea, within striking distance of Iraq.

A four-ship amphibious group with 2,000 Marines in the southern Gulf began moving north Saturday and was expected off Kuwait early Sunday.

U.S. supply ships were sailing from an Indian Ocean base, and Britain sent a frigate to bolster its naval force in the Gulf.

Later in the day, Clinton ordered 4,000 more troops from Fort Stewart, Ga., to head Saturday night for Kuwait, and two Patriot missile batteries ordered in Saudi Arabia.

He also heightened the alert status of ships moving into the Gulf region and of combat aircraft in Europe.

Earlier Saturday, Defense Secretary William Perry said the Iraqi "units that are already in position are too close for comfort."

"We have to look at the facts on the ground," Perry said from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where he was visiting U.S. troops. "We cannot afford to assume this is just a bluff. That is why we are taking the actions we are taking."

Iraq has never recognized the sovereignty of Kuwait, which endured a brutal seven-month occupation after Iraq invaded in 1990.

Iraq's Information Minister, Hamed Youssef Hammadi, confirmed the shifting of troops, but denied Baghdad had any "aggressive intentions."

"Iraq has the right to shift its troops for training and rotation purposes within its boundaries," he said in a telephone interview with the Arabic-language radio station, Radio Monte Carlo, based in Paris. "This is nobody else's business."

On Friday, Baghdad said suggestions that the Iraqi troops threaten Kuwait were part of a "sick plot" to justify maintaining U.N. sanctions that have crippled Iraq since it invaded the emirate.

Hammadi picked up that theme again Saturday when he accused the United States of trying "starve Iraq and turn it into another Somalia or Rwanda." The closest Iraqi troops were 12 miles from the border, he said.

The U.N. Security Council met Saturday to discuss the Iraqi troop movement, which does not violate the cease-fire of the 1991 Gulf War that routed Iraq from Kuwait.

After the session, David Hannay, the British ambassador and council president, said the council viewed Iraq's latest moves with "grave concern" and reaffirmed "its commitment to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Kuwait."

There were no overt signs of panic in the emirate on Saturday.

The emir of Kuwait, Sheik Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah, met with his Cabinet in emergency session for the second day. The government mobilized some reserves and appealed to Kuwait's 1.3 million people not to panic or hoard food.

Long lines formed outside banks and gasoline stations, but there was no mass exodus.

Since its liberation by U.S.-led allies in 1991, Kuwait has signed defense agreements with the United States, Britain, Russia and France and is expected to sign one with China soon.

The emirate's Arab neighbors rallied to its support at a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council on Saturday.

At the meeting in Riyadh, the chiefs of staff of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain and Qatar discussed what action they should take in response to the Iraqi moves.

In Cairo, the Arab League's secretary-general, Esmat Abdel-Meguid, urged Iraq to pull back its forces from the border. The Iraqi troop movement "threatens the peace and security of the region which is still suffering the effects of the 1990 Gulf crisis," he said, in a written statement from the group's headquarters.

Israel was hit by 39 Iraqi Scud missile attacks during the Gulf War. On Saturday, officials there said they were closely monitoring the Iraqi troop movements, but saw no immediate cause for concern.

Baghdad's periodical Al-Iraq said if the Security Council does not end the sanctions, the long-term monitoring of Iraq's weapons programs, set to begin within the next few weeks, "will not start."

The monitoring program is designed to prevent Saddam from reviving his weapons programs.

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