Responding to a request from the exiled government of Kuwait to enforce a comprehensive U.N. trade embargo, the United States said Sunday that it will begin stopping ships loaded with Iraqi oil or carrying other goods to or from Iraqi ports.
Secretary of State James A. Baker III, while shunning the term blockade to describe the planned cutoff of all maritime trade with Iraq, said that the "interdiction" policy will begin immediately.
President Bush, asked in Kennebunkport, Me., whether the United States would intercept shipments of food along with other products, replied: "Everything." He then repeated the word for emphasis: "Everything."
U.S. officials said they expect other nations, including Britain, France, Canada and Australia, to help carry out the strategy to further ostracize Iraq in retaliation for its Aug. 2 invasion of neighboring Kuwait.
"We're going to take measures that are necessary and proportionate in order to enforce the U.N. sanctions," Baker said in a televised interview.
The new policy was announced as U.S. troops and equipment continued to pour into Saudi Arabia, which has sought international assistance in repelling a possible assault by Iraqi forces massed in Kuwait.
The naval strategy could lead to confrontations at sea with merchant vessels in the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and the Mediterranean as U.S. warships and those from other nations assemble in the area to cut off Iraqi trade. A naval blockade generally is regarded as an act of war.
In Baghdad, Iraqi Foreign Minister Tarik Aziz said that any attempt by the United States to use military force to stop Iraqi tankers in the Persian Gulf would be viewed as "an act of aggression against Iraq."
In another rebuff to Iraq's President Saddam Hussein, the White House firmly rejected the proposal he advanced Sunday for ending the crisis, including a demand that Israel give up territories it occupies in return for Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait.
The official request for enforcement of the U.N. sanctions was made in a letter to Bush from the Emir of Kuwait, Sheik Jabbar al Ahmed al Sabah, who fled to Saudi Arabia after the invasion of his homeland.
Baker said that the emir's letter formed the legal basis for naval interdiction to shut off Iraqi exports and imports in response to the comprehensive trade embargo approved unanimously by the U.N. Security Council.
"This gives us justification for coming to Kuwait's collective self-defense," said a White House aide, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The dramatic U.S. decision to stop ships at sea was challenged by retired Rear Adm. Eugene J. Carroll Jr., deputy director of the Center for Defense Information, who said that the Security Council would need to explicitly approve any naval blockade. However, his view was disputed by a U.N. official.
"If we want to talk about power politics and force majeure , we have the horsepower to do it, but legally it's an act of piracy," Carroll said in an interview. "We seem very anxious to get some military action going at sea. A blockade would be one way of demonstrating military muscle."
The U.S. policy was outlined as an Iraqi tanker headed for a Saudi Arabian port on the Red Sea, the western terminus of a pipeline from Iraq, in hopes of loading a cargo of crude oil. While it appeared unlikely that U.S. ships could move rapidly enough to interdict the Iraqi vessel, officials said that they expect the Saudis to refuse to transfer the Iraqi oil.
Meantime, President Bush continued his efforts to solidify international support for the American-led drive to isolate Hussein, making a 6 a.m. telephone call to Syrian President Hafez Assad from his vacation home at Kennebunkport.
Bush told Assad, a frequent antagonist of the United States in the past but also a rival of the Iraqi leader, that he was "pleased we're looking at this (the gulf crisis) in the same way."
Syria has pledged to supply troops as part of an Arab force in Saudi Arabia to deter any Iraqi moves against the kingdom. Bush told reporters that he had a "good talk" with Assad, one of the few world leaders who rarely gets a phone call from the American President.
Bush, who went to church Sunday morning, spent most of the day at play. He jogged and drove his speedboat in the foggy Atlantic before heading for the golf course, where he talked briefly with reporters about the toughened enforcement of U.N. sanctions.
Earlier, the President had indicated that he was ready to order interception of ships to back up the global embargo. He told reporters Saturday that it would be "fine" with him if U.S. warships were needed to prevent Iraqi oil from moving through the narrow Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf to get to markets abroad.
Discussing the Middle East situation during a pause in his golf game, Bush was asked whether he would call the naval operation a blockade.
"No point getting into all these semantics," he replied. "The main thing is to stop the oil from coming out of there. That's what we're doing, going to do."
The President, responding to reports that Iran might be considering some form of military participation in the multinational effort, indicated that he would welcome Tehran's support. "Anybody to help enforce these actions--that's who we want," he said.
In a related development, the commander of the U.S. military forces in the Middle East said that the deployment of American troops to Saudi Arabia is running ahead of schedule. Interviewed at his Central Command headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida, Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf said that the movement of soldiers and equipment had gone smoothly.
"I would never tell you that the American forces that are there are 100% out of harm's way," Schwarzkopf told a Pentagon pool of correspondents being sent to Saudi Arabia.
But, he added, "We have built up a great deal of force over there now . . . and if they (Iraqis) do make an attack they are going to pay a price for it."
Defense Secretary Dick Cheney declined to put an upper limit on the number of American troops that will be sent to the Middle East and refused to say how long they might remain there.
Eaton reported from Washington and Gerstenzang from Kennebunkport. Staff writers Don Shannon and Robin Wright in Washington contributed to this story.
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'US VS. THEM'--Hussein is betting Arabs will respond to a sense of hurt and reject U.S.-led efforts to roll back his invasion.A8
USING U.S. SYSTEMS--Some of the missiles undoubtedly aimed at American troops are guided by systems developed in the U.S.A8
EASING THE GRIP--Iraq may find ways around the embargo; for example, Turkish truck drivers who use the back roads.A9