Saudi Leaders Feared They Were Next Target : Invasion: Ambassador to U.S. describes his nation's 'window of vulnerability.'

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For four days after Iraq overran tiny Kuwait, the leaders of neighboring Saudi Arabia lived in fear that their oil-rich kingdom was next on Saddam Hussein's hit list and that little could be done to stop him, the Saudi ambassador to the United States said Saturday.

"Four hours after that invasion, we were saying, 'How long will it take them before they go into Saudi Arabia?' " said the ambassador, Prince Bandar ibn Sultan.

In a 90-minute meeting with a small group of reporters at his palatial home outside Washington, Bandar provided the first detailed account of what happened inside Saudi Arabia after the invasion of Kuwait. Saudi Arabia has been sealed off to journalists since the invasion, and there has been a news blackout within the country.

Bandar, who recently returned from Saudi Arabia, described what he called a "window of vulnerability" to invasion and used a map to illustrate how Saudi political and military leaders monitored Iraq's tank-led forces as they rolled swiftly through Kuwait and then massed on the border with their nation.

He said the window has started to close since the arrival of U.S. troops and air support, along with forces from other countries, in recent days. But he would not say when he thinks there will be enough military force inside his country's borders to rule out an Iraqi attack.

"The threat of a bold move is there," said Bandar, a former fighter pilot and the son of Prince Sultan ibn Abdulaziz, the Saudi defense minister.

Confirming earlier reports from U.S. intelligence sources, Bandar said U.S. officials warned the Kuwaitis a week before the Aug. 2 attack that Iraqi forces were preparing for an invasion.

"The Kuwaitis said, 'No they won't. How can our Arab brothers do this?' " said the ambassador.

He said Hussein provided flat assurances to Saudi King Fahd, President Bush, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev and other world leaders that he would not invade his neighbors.

But at 2 a.m. on Aug. 2, Iraqi tanks and troops swept into Kuwait, took over the country and set up a puppet government. Bandar said Kuwaiti refugees report that Iraqis raped women and looted cities and that two Kuwaiti officials may have been killed when they refused to join a new government.

"By the time (Kuwait) asked for help, (the Iraqis) were 10 miles inside Kuwait," said Bandar.

King Fahd tried to reach Hussein by telephone and ask his intentions, but Bandar said the Iraqi leader stalled for 36 hours. Once they spoke, Hussein assured Fahd that he had no designs on Saudi Arabia.

But by that time, U.S. and Saudi intelligence sources had watched four divisions of Iraqi tanks building up at the Saudi border in a flat desert area that Bandar described as a "superhighway for tanks" leading directly to the kingdom's vast oil fields. Three other divisions were elsewhere in Kuwait, bringing the total number of Iraqi tanks in the tiny country to more than 1,500.

"We thought somebody was trying to position themselves quickly without alarming us," said Bandar, who added that the Saudi military knew the only way for Iraq to attack them was through Kuwait.

Bandar said the Saudis did not want to make the same mistake as the Kuwaitis of waiting too long, and on Saturday, Aug. 4, Fahd telephoned Bush to ask for military assistance. The following day, Bush agreed.

Bandar said that the entire Kuwaiti air force of 48 jet fighters had eluded capture and is waiting in Saudi Arabia to join any fighting against Iraqi forces.

The ambassador said he does not know how long the foreign troops will remain in Saudi Arabia. He said they would not withdraw until the threat of an Iraqi attack is gone, Iraqi troops leave Kuwait, and the legitimate government of Kuwait is restored.

He stressed that the troops are present to defend Saudi Arabia, not to forcibly remove the Iraqis from Kuwait. The economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations are the primary means for forcing Hussein to withdraw his army, said Bandar.

The Saudi ambassador also moved to reassure Americans that oil supplies and prices should remain stable despite the disruption in deliveries from Kuwait and Iraq, and he cautioned oil companies not to take advantage of the situation by gouging consumers.

"They have to be very careful and play this intelligently, not stupidly, and we do not support playing games with the price of oil to consumers," he said.

Bandar acknowledged that President Bush has discussed with the Saudis ways to keep world oil supplies stable, but he declined to provide details. He said the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries would decide soon on how to make up the lost production.

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