U.S. Speaks Softly on Interdiction : Semantics: Murky language avoids the pitfalls of international law and gives both sides room to maneuver.


The Bush Administration has deliberately wrapped murky language around its efforts to choke off shipping to and from Iraq so that it can avoid pitfalls of international law and give both the United States and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein some diplomatic room to maneuver.

The Administration has stopped short of calling the action a blockade, because that would amount to an act of war under international law.

"A blockade has a historical and legal meaning to it," Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams said Monday. Also, he said, the Administration avoided saying blockade "to avoid committing us in advance to any specific set of actions."

"It's a little thing, but there is room there to treat this as something less than a full-scale blockade in terms of war," said Peter D. Trooboff, a Washington lawyer who is president of the American Society of International Law. "It leaves room for him (Hussein) to back off without his having been at war with us."

But where the rules governing openly declared blockades are clear and precise, having been developed over centuries of naval operations, this artfully named "interdiction" opens many questions. The Pentagon says that it has not yet issued its orders to ships in the region, so it is unclear how the government intends to act if it confronts a ship that is determined to make its way in or out of Iraq.

"I'm not quite sure what you'd do with a ship when you got it," said retired Rear Adm. Eugene Carroll, deputy director of the Center for Defense Information.

To justify the Administration's action, Secretary of State James A. Baker III cited Kuwait's request for enforcement of a U.N. Security Council resolution embargoing all Iraqi trade, and Article 51 of the U.N. Charter giving countries the right to defend themselves and each other when they are attacked.

Carroll noted, however, that the Security Council has not specifically endorsed a blockade as part of its economic sanctions and he described Baker's interpretation as "not logical or legal." Whether the U.N. Charter covers the U.S. action, he added, is "a little hazy."

Other legal experts, however, insisted that the U.S. action is solidly within the law. "There's really no reason the Administration should be concerned about its legal position," said Abraham D. Sofaer, legal adviser to the State Department during the Reagan Administration and now a Washington lawyer. The Security Council resolution, he said, "explicitly calls upon (members) to prevent this kind of shipping."

The Administration hopes its approach will work like the enormously successful "quarantine" that President John F. Kennedy placed around Cuba during the 1962 missile crisis. Then, with U.S. warships threatening to board and inspect any vessels approaching Cuba, the United States achieved its goal--forcing the Soviets to dismantle their Cuban bases and withdraw their missiles--without a military confrontation.

U.S. troops boarded and searched only one vessel, a Lebanese-registered freighter called the Marucla, and allowed it to proceed into Havana after determining that it was not carrying any arms.

In this case, however, the action is far broader, seeking to prevent any goods from entering or leaving Iraq, not just the military shipments that were blocked from Cuba. In that sense, analysts said, it has the characteristics of a conventional blockade.

In purely military terms, the geography of the Persian Gulf should make blocking ships from entering and leaving Iraq a "piece of cake. That probably is as easy as any place we could do it," said retired Capt. David Yonkers, who commanded a squadron of destroyers in the Persian Gulf and who participated in the Cuban quarantine as a young ensign.

While the Cuban exercise had to be conducted over wide-open expanses of water, all shipping going directly to or from Iraq must pass through the relatively narrow Persian Gulf and ultimately the Strait of Hormuz, which stretches only 40 miles across at its narrowest point. A few U.S. warships, assisted by planes and helicopters, could easily monitor all traffic, analysts agreed.

Nine U.S. warships are currently inside the Persian Gulf awaiting orders to enforce the sanctions. In the Red Sea, near the Saudi oil port of Yanbu--from which Iraqi oil flowed before the Saudis closed a pipeline--the aircraft carrier Eisenhower, along with three escorting warships and a pair of support ships, are standing by for orders from Washington.

When a nation declares a traditional blockade, it puts all the other countries in the world on notice, specifying the area around which it plans to erect a barrier, which cargo it will not allow through and any other procedures it plans to follow "so everybody understands what the rules are," Carroll said.

When a vessel is spotted entering the area, the blockading nation orders it to halt and sends a party of officers aboard to inspect its logs and other records to determine what it is carrying and where it is going.

If the approaching vessel refuses to stop, the nation imposing the blockade may fire across its bow or "give them a whiff of the grape," Carroll said, invoking a seafaring phrase that dates from the era when ships used grapeshot as ammunition.

In the most extreme circumstances, a blockading vessel may fire upon another in an effort to disable it. If it is successful, the crippled ship may be taken to port, where a court will determine if it will become "a prize" awarded to the nation that erected the blockade, the retired admiral said.

Times staff writer Don Shannon contributed to this report.


Some elements of state National Guard units are being activated to assist in he deployment of the U.S. forces to the Persian Gulf region. Participating states and units: 1. New York--105th Military Airlift Group, Air National Guard. 2. New Jersey--170th Air Refueling Group, Air National Guard. 3. Kansas--500 members of the 190th Air Refueling Group, Air National Guard. 4. West Virginia--74 volunteers from the 167th Tactical Airlift Group, and 130th Tactical Airlift Group, Air National Guard. 5. Tennessee--134th Air Refueling Roup, 164th Military Airlift Group and 118th Tactical Airlift Wing, Air National Guard. 6. Illinois--108 members of the 126th Air Refueling Wing, Air National Guard. 7. North Carolina--21 members of the 156th Aeromedical Evacuation Flight, Air national Guard. 8. South Carolina--5 members of the 228th Signal Bridge, Air National Guard. 9. Ohio--14 members of the 160th Air Refueling Group, and 20 from the 179th Tactical Airlift Group, all Air National Guard. 10. Texas--11 volunteers from the 136th Tactical Aircraft Wing, Air National Guard. 11. Arizona--The number of guard soldiers is not disclosed, but they include members of the the 161st Refueling Group, Air National Guard. 12. Rhode Island--3 members of the 143rd Tactical Airlift Group, Air National Guard. 13. Delaware--60 National Guard members, 166th Tactical Airlift Group, Air National Guard. 14. New Hampshire--40 members of the 157th Air Refueling Group, Air National Guard. 15. Utah--25 members of the 151st Refueling Group, 3 members of the 169th Electronic Security Squadron, Air National Guard. 16 Washington--Gov. Booth Gardner declines to give the units involved.

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