War or Peace? GIs Will Get Answer Soon, Baker Says : Military: His speech to airmen in Saudi Arabia hints at an attack soon after Jan. 15 if Iraq does not pull out.


Secretary of State James A. Baker III, declaring that the world is nearing the brink of war, told cheering U.S. Air Force pilots and crews Friday that they will not have to wait much longer to find out if they will fight or go home.

Standing in a climate-controlled hangar in front of two of the F-111 warplanes that may be called upon to drop precision-guided bombs on key targets in Baghdad, Baker said Iraqi President Saddam Hussein will fail if he tries to delay the United Nations’ deadline for the use of force.

Baker visited the same ultramodern air base last September. He reminded the airmen that they had asked him then whether they would be called upon to fight.


“Now as the clock ticks down to midnight Jan. 15, I (still) cannot give you an absolutely definitive answer,” Baker said. “But I can tell you that you will not have to wait much longer for an answer to that question.”

Several hundred airmen cheered lustily. They interrupted Baker each time he gave even the slightest hint that the crisis would be resolved soon--one way or another. They also cheered when he said that no American ground or air forces would be stationed in the Persian Gulf region once the crisis ends.

Although Baker insisted to reporters that President Bush and the leaders of other countries in the international coalition have not yet decided if and when they will order a military attack, the air base speech indicated that war will come shortly after the Tuesday deadline unless Iraq ends its occupation of Kuwait.

In the meantime, Baker said, Hussein can still defuse the crisis if he agrees to pull out, but he said the time for that is growing short.

“We believe that if Iraq is going to withdraw from Kuwait, Saddam Hussein will wait until he is on the very brink before he moves,” Baker said. “And our worry is that in his usual style, he will simply miscalculate where the brink exactly is.

“Just so there is no misunderstanding whatever, let me be absolutely clear,” he said. “We pass the brink at midnight Jan. 15.”


There have been persistent rumors that Iraq will announce at least a partial withdrawal a day or two after the Tuesday deadline set by the U.N. Security Council. That would permit the Iraqi dictator to claim to have acted without concern for the U.N. ultimatum.

But Baker made clear that such a strategy might not be soon enough to avert war.

At the same time, Baker revealed that he told Iraqi Foreign Minister Tarik Aziz in Geneva on Wednesday that the United States would not stand in the way if Iraq sought to gain concessions from Kuwait through “peaceful negotiations” provided Baghdad ends its occupation and restores the ousted emir to the throne.

U.S. officials have discussed such a scenario before, but Baker had not previously said that he recommended the plan to Aziz.

“Time is running out, but the path to peace remains open,” Baker said.

Baker’s visit to the air base came as something of a surprise because he said Sunday, as he flew to Europe from Washington, that VIP visits to U.S. forces in the gulf were disturbing preparedness for combat.

“We have discouraged recent visitors to the gulf region from lining up visits to troops in the desert,” he said Sunday. “In keeping with our own encouraging others not to do that, we will not be arranging a visit to our troops in the desert. . . . They are in the operational mode now.”

Aides said later, somewhat sheepishly, that the air base, a new and modern facility, was not--strictly speaking--in the desert, and the troops were all housed nearby, so disruptions to routine could be kept to a minimum.


Baker’s audience, mostly male and mostly in combat fatigues, waited for more than an hour for the secretary of state’s arrival because they were told that he would stop by at 7 p.m. He arrived at 7:45 p.m., on the dot of the time listed in his official schedule. One airman complained that the troops are regularly assembled far ahead of time for events, resulting in a substantial waste of time.

Baker visited the base after conferring with Sheik Jabbar al Ahmed al Sabah, the exiled emir of Kuwait, at the Sheraton Hotel in Taif, which has become Kuwait’s capital in exile.

Noting that he had visited Taif several times since the Iraqi invasion, Baker told the emir: “I hope the next time I see you will be in Kuwait city.”

As he did in earlier stops in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, and in Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates, Baker asked the emir to increase the exiled government’s financial contribution to the cost of the U.S.-led military force in the gulf.

Between them, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the Emirates pledged $7.5 billion to help defray U.S. and allied military costs during the final four months of last year. They agreed to contribute a similar amount to ease the financial burden on Turkey, Egypt, Jordan and other nations that were hard-hit by the economic embargo against Iraq.

But with the 1990 funds already spent, Baker is asking the three oil-rich nations to make new pledges for this year, probably substantially higher.


Prince Bandar ibn Sultan, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States, told reporters in Riyadh that his government agreed to pick up between 40% and 50% of the total military cost. Just how much that will be in dollars depends on whether there is a war.

A senior State Department official declined to confirm the 40%-50% figure but said that the Saudi approach to “responsibility-sharing” was acceptable to Washington.

During his stop in Abu Dhabi, Baker gave Sheik Zayed ibn Sultan al Nuhayan, the president of the United Arab Emirates, a specific request for military support. But the official refused to say how much it was.

Zayed said he wanted to study the request but promised that the Emirates “will do its part,” the official said.

Meanwhile, State Department officials said Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger is on a trip to Israel, conferring tonight, after the Jewish Sabbath ends at sundown, with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. Eagleburger, the department’s second in command, is the highest-ranking State Department official in the Bush Administration to visit Israel.

A senior official insisted that the trip was planned well before Aziz said Wednesday in Geneva that if war breaks out, Iraq would “absolutely” attack Israel.


Nevertheless, the Bush Administration is deeply concerned about the possibility that Israel may be drawn into the conflict. Not only is Washington committed to Israel’s defense, but U.S. officials admit that if Israel is involved in the battle, some of Washington’s Arab allies might find it awkward to fight on the same side as the Jerusalem government against Arab Iraq.