The governments of Kuwait and other Middle East nations are mobilizing a second phase of tactical military pressure on Iraq to supplement the U.S.-orchestrated Operation Desert Shield, ranking Arab diplomats said Monday.
The plan would effectively open three new "fronts" on Iraq's borders with Syria and Iran and within Iraq among its long-restive Kurdish population.
The escalation is an attempt "to maintain pressure and prevent bloodshed" by forcing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to redeploy troops now massed along the border with Saudi Arabia, according to Sheik Saud al Nasir al Sabah, Kuwait's ambassador to the United States.
Senior Bush Administration sources confirmed that they anticipate troop movements by Syria to its 400-mile-long eastern frontier with Iraq, in part to deter potential retaliation by Baghdad for President Hafez Assad's decision to send troops to the Persian Gulf with an Arab force.
But Kuwaiti and U.S. sources said the primary goal is psychological, not military. "This escalates the war of nerves," one ranking Arab envoy said. "There is no intention of firing a shot. But (Hussein) will soon find himself confronting armies on every side, not just on the Saudi border."
"Being on a war footing on virtually every border should make him realize how vulnerable he is even with his mighty military," a U.S. Middle East analyst added.
The new squeeze comes, however, just as the exiled Kuwaiti government has learned that Iraqi troops have looted the Central Bank of Kuwait of an estimated $5 billion in gold and cash, according to Saud. With Iraq's oil-revenue losses estimated to total about $1 billion a month as a result of U.N. sanctions, Baghdad can now replace those losses for at least five months with its purloined funds, he alleged.
"That certainly helps buy (Hussein) some time," one senior State Department official conceded. "But he'll still have to get goods bought with those funds through the lines" of the tightening multinational blockade around Iraq.
Mohammed al Mashat, the Iraqi ambassador to the United States, vehemently denied that Iraqi troops engaged in looting. But senior Kuwaiti officials said the total value of Kuwait's losses from raids on public and private institutions may run as high as $50 billion. U.S. officials were unable to confirm the extent of any Iraqi looting except to cite reports from refugees.
Iraqi forces reportedly have stripped hospitals of sophisticated diagnostic and other medical equipment, in some cases turning patients out of their beds, according to eyewitness accounts now being collected by the exiled Kuwaiti government from people who have managed to slip across the border. The Iraqis have also walked off with entire computer systems and high-tech goods from businesses, as well as fleets of Mercedes-Benzes and other luxury cars from showrooms and private homes, the Kuwaiti ambassador charged.
The plan to further isolate Iraq is being orchestrated by a flurry of behind-the-scenes activity this week. Assistant Secretary of State John Kelly is scheduled to talk in Damascus today with President Assad, while Kuwait's foreign minister, Sheik Sabah al Ahmed al Sabah, is expected in Washington today to meet with Secretary of State James A. Baker III.
Jalal Talabani, leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party, was to have met the Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States late Monday to offer support. The Kurdish population in northern Iraq has long been an irritant to the Baghdad government. Tension escalated after Iraq used chemical weapons against the Kurds in the final stages of the Persian Gulf War. About 5,000 Kurds are believed to have died in the border town of Halabjeh in the spring of 1988.
The Kurds have long sought autonomy from Baghdad's tight-fisted grip. In 1974, they waged an insurgency against Baghdad that was funded and aided by American, Israeli and Iranian intelligence services.
Saud and other officials of the exiled Kuwaiti government already have talked by telephone with Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati. Just last month, the two nations conducted their first high-level talks since the 1979 Iranian revolution.
After Velayati's visit to Kuwait last month, he proclaimed that "all problems" that had divided Iran and Kuwait had been resolved and called the emirate "a friendly country." Among those problems were Kuwait's help for Iraq during the eight-year gulf war and Iran's simultaneous attempt to subvert the Kuwaiti regime, sink its oil tankers and assassinate its emir.
A joint communique last month said the two nations "have vowed to build up trust and cooperation between countries in the gulf."
During contacts on Aug. 3, the day after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the Iranian ambassador expressed "outrage" at the Iraqi invasion and asked how Tehran could assist the tiny city-state, according to Saud.
The movement of troops by Iran would be a major step, in part because the United Nations appeared to be closing in on a final peace treaty to formally end the gulf war after two years of deadlocked negotiations. But, Arab envoys said, the deployment would not be intended to renew conflict but to force Hussein to bring back some or all of the estimated 50,000 troops he has pulled off the 700-mile Iranian border for duty on his southern border last week.
The movement of Syrian troops along its eastern border with Iraq also would be a major shift by Assad, who has maintained up to 40,000 troops in Lebanon since 1976 at enormous cost. The Syrian military has limited capacity to move major equipment quickly.
Turkey, which shares a 200-mile border with Iraq, came out early in support of sanctions against its neighbor. And on Sunday, Turkey's Parliament gave the government power to declare war or send troops abroad if Turkey is attacked.
If the plan goes as Kuwaiti officials now claim it will, four of Iraq's five borders would effectively be surrounded by troops, leaving Baghdad's only access to the outside world limited to the border with Jordan, which spans less than 100 miles.