Defense Secretary Dick Cheney on Wednesday cited increasing indications that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein may lash out militarily and warned that the U.S. commitment to thwarting Hussein's takeover of Kuwait is "open-ended."
With the international trade sanctions against Iraq "beginning to bite," a new phase of the crisis may have begun in which Hussein "may seek to use his military force to try to break the stranglehold that the embargo has imposed," Cheney said.
Hussein's rising tide of invective over the last four days may be "the first, beginning evidence that in fact he's really beginning to feel the pain," Cheney added.
His assessment, delivered in a speech at a conference of business economists, focused on the central question posed by this phase of the confrontation: whether Hussein will choose to actively fight the embargo, potentially triggering a full-scale military clash, or lay back and force the United States to maintain international resolve for a protracted period.
Cheney's comments came a day after the U.N. Security Council voted to extend the embargo with a shut-off of virtually all air traffic to and from Iraq and Kuwait.
Bush Administration officials also said Wednesday that they plan to present to Congress, perhaps as early as today, a scaled-down package of arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The initial sale of M-1 Abrams tanks, Patriot air defense missiles, Apache helicopters and high-technology rocket systems would be worth about $7.8 billion and would be followed by a proposal to sell $14 billion worth of more weapons early next year.
The second package of weapons would include 24 F-15 fighter aircraft as well as refueling aircraft and more Patriot missiles. The proposed arms sale, originally drafted as a single package, was broken into two phases after it drew strong opposition on Capitol Hill.
Referring to the aerial blockade of Iraq, Cheney said President Bush has not ordered the Pentagon to draft plans for using weapons in enforcing the new sanctions. But, he added, "there is always the possibility of using U.S. military force" to prevent planes from leaving or entering Iraq with goods other than food approved for humanitarian purposes.
In a development that could presage U.S. military action, defense sources Wednesday confirmed reports that the United States plans to send an American aircraft carrier into the Persian Gulf for the first time. The unprecedented move was called for by Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the commander of all U.S. forces that would participate in military action in Saudi Arabia.
The aircraft carrier Independence, based in San Diego and stationed in the Gulf of Oman, is expected to move into the narrow body of water in the next couple of days, Pentagon sources said. From a position well inside the gulf, the carrier's 90 aircraft could help support a Marine landing on Kuwaiti shores or bolster a multipronged air attack on key military and economic targets in Kuwait or Iraq.
"It puts a little more pressure on Saddam Hussein," said one military officer. "It's just one more turn of the vise."
U.S. aircraft carriers, which stretch as far as 1,086 feet and displace as much as 89,000 tons, have never operated inside the shallow and constrained Persian Gulf because their ability to maneuver out of the way of attacking missiles or aircraft is greatly restricted.
Officials said that, while the Navy remains concerned about threats from Iranian as well as Iraqi forces, the service is eager to send the Independence into the gulf well before any shooting might begin.
"The first time to (move in a carrier) is not when there are bullets flying," one naval officer said. "If they go in and operate there for a while, they'll be a little more comfortable--their performance will increase."
But officials cautioned that the planned carrier deployment could be canceled or rescheduled in the wake of news reports.
Speaking to business economists, Cheney described the U.S. deployment of forces, which now numbers almost 170,000 in and around Saudi Arabia, as part of a " 'don't screw around' school of military strategy" to which President Bush subscribes.
"If you're going to send U.S. forces to an area of the world where they may become engaged in hostilities," said Cheney, "it is then incumbent upon those of us who send them to make absolutely certain that we send enough not just to get into trouble, but to get out of trouble successfully should, in fact, hostilities develop."
Iraqi troop strength in and near Kuwait is now estimated at 430,000, with the Pentagon increasing its estimates by 70,000 on Tuesday. The Iraqis also have deployed about 3,500 tanks and 1,700 artillery pieces.
ENFORCING THE AIR EMBARGO The U.N. resolution authorizing the air embargo of flights in and out of Iraq specifically bans the shooting down or use of force to stop planes that ignore the embargo. Questions remain as to who will do any patrolling of the skies and which planes will actually be embargoed. However, according to the Dept. of Defense, there are procedures for intercepting aircraft in the air. 1. Voice Commands: An intercepting pilot will attempt to contact a designated aircraft by contacting the plane's pilot over established emergency radio channels. 2. Wagging the Wing: If no response is received by voice communication, the pilot may choose to wiggle his wings up and down to show the other pilot his request for him to land immediately or change course. 3. Lower Landing Gear: The pilot may also extend his landing gear to show the other pilot that he is being asked to land or change course. At night, this may involve turning the landing lights off and on several times to illuminate the landing gear to the intercepted aircraft. 4. Firing Across the Bow: A last resort would be for intercepting pilots to fire their guns across the front of the plane, but not actually strike the plane.