Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak plunged into emergency diplomacy Tuesday to bridge the noisy rift between Iraq and Kuwait, as the Pentagon announced "short-notice" naval maneuvers for U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf.
Mubarak met privately in Baghdad with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and in Kuwait with Sheik Jabbar al Ahmed al Sabah, the emir or ruler, on a day when Iraq again accused the oil-rich sheikdom of conspiring to destroy its economy and massed at least 30,000 troops on the Kuwaiti border. Iraq also reportedly has posted more than 200 Soviet-made tanks along the border.
It was Hussein who triggered the open hostilities last week, setting the region on edge, by accusing Kuwait of scheming to drive down Iraq's oil revenues by undercutting production quotas of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.
Kuwait on Tuesday canceled leave for its 20,000-member military, which would be no match for the battle-tested legions of Iraq, one of the Middle East's predominant military powers. Baghdad has an army of more than 400,000 well-trained and well-equipped troops.
In the past, Kuwait has depended upon its economic vitality and its diplomatic resourcefulness to protect it from would-be predators.
In Washington, the Pentagon said six U.S. warships were ordered to begin "short-notice" maneuvers in the Persian Gulf with naval vessels of the United Arab Emirates. Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams said two of the U.S. ships cut short port calls to participate.
"We're concerned about the (Iraqi) buildup," White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater declared. "It is a delicate situation. We urge all parties to avoid violence."
At the State Department, spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler confirmed the buildup and said, "Iraq and others know there is no place for coercion and intimidation in a civilized world." She added that Kuwait has moved an undisclosed number of troops to the border with Iraq.
The U.S. naval maneuvers, dubbed "Exercise Ivory Justice" by the Pentagon, also involve two U.S. Air Force KC-135 air refueling tankers and one C-141 cargo plane hauling maintenance and repair equipment.
Williams said the show of force underscores the fact that the United States has "longstanding agreements and commitments with our friends in the region." During the Persian Gulf War between Iran and Iraq, the U.S. provided naval escorts for Kuwaiti oil tankers in the gulf to protect them from attacks. The U.S. interest in peace and safety there "hasn't changed," Williams said.
Later Tuesday, Mubarak pressed on with his whirlwind mediation mission during a windup stop in Saudi Arabia to meet with King Fahd, whose country is the No. 1 oil producer in the region.
"My trip is aimed at resolving the present crisis . . . and clearing the atmosphere," state-owned Cairo Radio quoted Mubarak as saying Tuesday night. The radio described Mubarak's talks with Hussein and the emir as "successful."
Mubarak reportedly was trying to arrange a Cairo meeting between the Iraqi and Kuwaiti foreign ministers to defuse the confrontation over oil policies. According to today's editions of the Cairo newspaper Al Gomhouriya, he also presented a four-point peace proposal to both sides.
With Hussein's propaganda machine unrelenting in its attack on Kuwaiti officials, the reports of troop deployments near the border heightened the crisis atmosphere.
Some military analysts said they doubt that an outbreak of fighting is likely, despite the belligerent tone of the Iraqi campaign and the always-tense atmosphere in the gulf states.
"It was designed to (frighten) Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates," said analyst Don Kerr of London's International Institute for Strategic Studies. He was commenting on the Iraqi threats of violence and Hussein's chilling remark last week that "Iraqis will not forget the saying that cutting necks is better than cutting means of living."
"It was a propaganda exercise" designed to force support for Iraq's oil goals, Kerr added.
Nonetheless, one U.S. Mideast military expert, Anthony Cordesman, who is a defense adviser to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), described the oil-rich sheikdom as "an extraordinarily tempting target" for Iraq. Expecting to mount a military defense, he added, "is a little like asking Luxembourg to defend itself against East Germany."
Military experts said that if Iraq continues aggressive posturing, Saudi Arabia and the United States likely would step up flights of Saudi-owned AWACS (airborne warning and control system) aircraft, which are manned in part by U.S. operators. Those aircraft could detect any early Iraqi bid to secure the air over Kuwait or the Persian Gulf and would serve as command and control stations in the event that the air forces of the United States and the Gulf states came to Kuwait's defense.
Iraq has blustered before about Kuwait, suggesting that several of the emirate's coastal islands were wrongfully taken from Iraq and should be returned. The islands, such as Bubiyan Island just outside of the fiercely disputed Shatt al Arab waterway between Iran and Iraq, would extend Iraq's coast on the gulf and ease its ability to export oil.
Iraqi Oil Minister Issam Abdul-Rahim Chalabi told the state news agency Tuesday that Baghdad's views in the current crisis will prevail at this week's crucial OPEC meeting in Geneva.
"The results of the recent contacts and meetings by OPEC states showed unanimous support for Iraq's stand," he said.
Baghdad, painfully short of hard currency to rebuild its war-damaged economy, wants more dollars for its oil and demands that its OPEC partners curtail production to drive up the price--currently less than $17 a barrel--to $25 or more.
For the past year, Kuwait and another small gulf nation, the United Arab Emirates, have refused to be bound by their OPEC production quotas, industry analysts say, and have flooded the market in search of a large world share, driving down the price.
Steady oil prices became the first victim of the confrontation Tuesday, kicked upward by fears of instability. The London market recorded an early 50-cent jump on September oil futures, to $19.60 a barrel. The spot price for immediate deliveries was about $16.50, up more than $2 a barrel from its level of several weeks ago.
In Japan--totally dependent on imported oil, with most of it from the gulf--the dollar rose against the yen.
Prices began rising after a July 11 meeting in Jidda, Saudi Arabia, where Kuwait and the Emirates pledged to hold production within their OPEC quotas until the issue of prices and quotas is taken up at the Geneva ministerial meeting, which begins Thursday.
Last week, with Kuwait and the Emirates sticking to their Jidda pledge according to industry analysts, Baghdad launched its bruising propaganda attack on Kuwait. In a letter to the Arab League, it accused the sheikdom of undermining oil prices in collusion with the United States, militarily occupying Iraqi territory and siphoning oil from an Iraqi field.
Kuwait denied the charges in its own letter to the league and said Iraq's history is "rich" with violations of Kuwaiti territory--but the tiny nation tempered its language in an apparent attempt to not provoke the volatile Hussein. Nevertheless, Baghdad took offense at every Kuwaiti counterargument.
The barrage became personal this week when Baghdad's government-controlled press accused Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheik Sabah al Ahmed al Sabah, an influential member of the ruling family, of being an American tool and coveting the post of emir for himself.
Williams reported from Nicosia and Healy reported from Washington.