Despite the United States’ pointed threats of war, Iraq appears to be ignoring the U.N. ultimatum to withdraw from Kuwait and shows no signs of preparing to pull back troops as the Jan. 15 deadline approaches, U.S. military commanders said Wednesday.
Rather than preparing to fall back--a maneuver some officials have anticipated as a last-ditch Iraqi ploy--Saddam Hussein’s forces seem to be bracing for battle, Lt. Col. Tom Coury, an Air Force intelligence officer, told reporters in Saudi Arabia.
“The construction continues,” Coury said, citing fortifications that include mine fields, barbed wire, reinforced bunkers and sand obstacles. The assessment came in the first of planned weekly military briefings--a schedule that will become daily if hostilities commence.
Meanwhile, military officials said that American and Australian sailors boarded an Iraqi vessel at dawn Wednesday, then fired smoke and noise grenades after the crew became unruly and tried to grab the sailors’ weapons.
There were no confirmed injuries in the incident, U.S. military spokesmen said. The ship, laden with tons of sugar, powdered milk, rice and cooking oil, was diverted from its intended destination of Basra, Iraq.
The 11,000-ton Ibn Khaldoun also was carrying 150 women who represent a group known as the Arab Women’s Union and who have said that they were on a humanitarian mission to Iraq. The group was said to consist of Arab, American, Japanese, British and other European women and was suspected of being funded by Iraq for propaganda purposes.
At the briefing in Saudi Arabia, senior U.S. officers from the Central Command told reporters that they are taking seriously Hussein’s threat to attack Israel if war breaks out in the Persian Gulf.
Despite the looming U.N. deadline for withdrawing from Kuwait, Hussein’s troops are continuing to fortify their military positions in the occupied emirate, the officials said.
“We see absolutely no indication that he intends to withdraw,” said Coury, the Air Force intelligence officer. He described the Iraqi fortifications, which extend more than 125 miles from the Persian Gulf coast to northwest of the Kuwaiti-Iraqi-Saudi border area, as World War I-vintage but formidable.
Coury said it is believed that Hussein will try to avoid conflict as the Jan. 15 deadline approaches, hoping that the allied coalition will erode if he buys time. Western diplomats here in the Saudi capital concurred, saying that the Iraqi president seems to want to deal, but may not have figured out what to do next.
They said that Hussein might be ready to launch an 11th-hour “peace offensive"--perhaps a limited withdrawal from Kuwait--possibly accounting for his decision to call home to Baghdad half a dozen of Iraq’s key ambassadors for consultations. There were, diplomats said, no known Arab or Western diplomatic initiatives under way that are likely to break the stalemate.
At the military briefing, U.S. officers said that nearly 300,000 American troops are now in the Persian Gulf region, of which the Army has contributed 180,000, the Marines 50,000 and the Navy and Air Force 35,000 each. In addition, 125,000 guardsmen and reservists have been called to duty and are serving in both the United States and Saudi Arabia.
Maj. Gen. J. Dane Starling, the command’s director of logistics, said that the rapid buildup of U.S. forces--the equivalent of moving and sustaining a city the size of Richmond, Va.--was aided by Saudi Arabia’s excellent infrastructure of ports and highways and by Saudi support.
The Saudis, Starling said, are providing without cost 180,000 meals a day for U.S. troops, 300 million gallons of water daily and 500,000 gallons of fuel. They also are spending $20 million to build ammunition storage facilities and to upgrade roads and warehouses. Kuwait has given $2.5 billion directly to the U.S. Treasury, he said.
Non-military Western sources said that the international economic sanctions imposed on Iraq are having a major effect on its standard of living, with the lower class being hardest hit. They estimated that the nation’s living standards have been sliced by a third and said there is some evidence that people are starting to blame Hussein.
“Goods are available, but at a price most can’t afford,” one analyst said. The sanctions, military spokesmen said, are costing Iraq $100 million a day.
One reason the sanctions are working, they said, is because of the effectiveness of the naval blockade, supported by the 17 nations with naval forces in the region. Since August, allied naval forces have intercepted 5,833 vessels, boarded 713 and diverted 30 to non-Iraqi ports.
The Iraqi ship boarded Wednesday had been engulfed in controversy since leaving Algeria last month. Some women disembarked from the Ibn Khaldoun even before it sailed, charging that Iraq was manipulating them for propaganda purposes. After calls in Tunis, Tunisia, and Tripoli, Libya, the vessel was stopped and searched by Egyptian security officers upon entering the Suez Canal. They ordered the passengers and crew to stop chanting slogans as they passed the city of Suez at the southern tip of the waterway.
Imad Kazem Hassan, the ship’s captain, told the Iraqi News Agency two weeks ago that Western forces were paying close attention to the Ibn Khaldoun. It had been followed by American vessels and a Spanish ship at one point, he said, adding that helicopters, jet fighters and a four-engine plane had made low-level passes at various times.
Details of the incident Wednesday were unclear, military officers said. The 300-foot-long Ibn Khaldoun was stopped near Masirah Island in the Arabian Sea by two American destroyers, the Fife and the Oldendorf, and an Australian warship, the Sydney. A helicopter was used to drop the boarding party on deck.
When some of the unarmed 42-member crew pressed forward, trying to disarm the Americans and Australians, a warning shot and the grenades were fired to control the crowd, officials said.
The ship’s captain claimed that two women suffered heart attacks and two others had miscarriages as a result of the operation. But a U.S. medical officer brought on board the vessel found no evidence of injuries, said Lt. Col. Greg Pepin, one of the briefing officers.