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Clinton Prepares Troops for Action Amid Iraqi Moves

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Concerned about ominous movements by Iraqi troops, President Clinton ordered the U.S. military Friday to prepare for possible action in the Persian Gulf region, the White House said.

The United States increased its flights over both Kurdistan in Iraq’s north and the Shiite areas of the south and was considering dispatching an Air Force expeditionary unit--up to 30 aircraft and 1,000 support troops--to block aggression by the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, Pentagon officials said.

Iraq has moved three divisions of its elite Republican Guard--thousands of troops--and more than 300 artillery pieces as well as surface-to-air missiles and aircraft to the border of the autonomous Kurdish region amid indications that Hussein is prepared to move on Irbil, the administrative center of Kurdistan.

“Our impression is that Hussein is poised and ready to attack. We should know his intentions within 24 hours,” a senior Pentagon official said late Friday.

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Indeed, early this morning, Pentagon officials indicated that an offensive may have begun. And an Iraqi opposition group in exile in London said that it had received reports that Iraqi troops were shelling Irbil’s outskirts and advancing on the city.

Since Iraqi troop movements began earlier this week, the Clinton administration has been increasingly alarmed about what Iraq’s goal might be in the Kurdish area, which has been protected by a U.S.-led coalition since the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Irbil is just above the 36th parallel, the southern boundary for the U.S.-protected zone.

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The section of northern Iraq occupied by the Kurds has been effectively off-limits to the Iraqi troops since the end of the Gulf War, when the United Nations took steps to protect the Kurds from Iraqi harassment.

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Kurdish tribes occupying the area have been seeking independence from Iraq for several years, but the Iraqi regime has refused to grant it. The Iraqi government has conducted a steady campaign of harassment against Kurdish tribes people, U.S. officials said.

Although Iraqi troops technically are not restricted from deploying there, the U.N. Security Council has set up a “no-fly” zone above the 36th parallel, prohibiting Iraqi warplanes from entering the airspace over the region, and, by and large, Iraqi troops had avoided the sector until earlier this week.

Administration officials are perplexed at Hussein’s motives, especially in light of Iraq’s recent hard-won green light from the United Nations to begin limited oil exports for the first time since the war. The move may be related to clashes between the two major Kurdish factions that erupted Aug. 15.

“We have no good answers. But we can speculate that he sees an opportunity to regain part of the north. He may see it as too good to pass up,” the official said.

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Hussein also may be testing to see what latitude he has. He has employed that tactic often, both before and since the 1991 war, in dealing with his own population, the U.S.-led coalition and assorted U.N. monitoring and aid groups.

Still, White House spokesman Mike McCurry, traveling with Clinton in Thebes, Ill., said Friday: “We will consider any aggression by Iraq to be a matter of very grave concern. We will continue to monitor the situation very carefully.”

U.S. flights over both the north and south are designed to signal an American commitment to prevent Iraqi troop movements.

“We are taking prudent steps to tell him to stop,” a Pentagon source said of Hussein. “We’re signaling that we would view an attack on the Kurds as a serious mistake, and our response will be at a time and place of our own choosing.”

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The tempo of flights over the regions has increased, particularly in the south, an area of strategic importance because much of Iraq’s oil wealth is in the Shiite-dominated area.

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In crisis sessions that went on late into Friday night, Pentagon officials laid the groundwork for dispatching an expeditionary unit of Air Force fighter aircraft to Jordan, which borders Iraq, or other front-line areas. Units that might be involved were being alerted late Friday. Another expeditionary unit is on two-month temporary deployment in Qatar.

Two aircraft carriers--the Carl Vinson in the Arabian Sea and the Enterprise in the Mediterranean--are also on alert to move on short notice.

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The crisis has its roots in fighting between the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Democratic Party of Kurdistan. The fighting marked the collapse of a U.S.-brokered peace in the strategic territory. Reports from the region estimated that there have been hundreds of casualties in the worst fighting in a year.

The crisis, U.S. officials say, has been further complicated by intervention from Iran, which dispatched troops more than 80 miles into Iraq earlier this month to strike at bases of a separate anti-Iranian Kurdish party.

Tehran also has been arming and aiding the Patriotic Union with artillery fire from behind Iranian lines. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party of Kurdistan has at minimum the “benign approval” of Baghdad and possibly even artillery backing from Iraqi troops, a Pentagon source said.

Besides worries about Iraq, U.S. officials express concern that Iraqi action against the Kurds could lead to Iraqi clashes with Iran--with the potential to rekindle the kind of friction that ignited the 1980-88 war between the longtime rivals.

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“Saddam may act against the Kurds under a scenario that claims he’s justified because he is acting against Iran,” the Pentagon official said.

The United States has sent public and private signals all month to Iran to end its actions in Kurdistan.

Washington fears that Iraqi aggression also could spark a mass exodus of hundreds of thousands of Kurdish refugees to Turkey, as happened when Hussein moved to put down an open Kurdish rebellion against his regime in the weeks after the Gulf War.

U.S. envoys in London were scrambling to try to revive Kurdish peace efforts in hastily arranged talks that began there Friday. A temporary cease-fire was announced Thursday, but many deep divisions must be addressed before it becomes permanent. The U.S. goal is to reunite the fractious Kurds--thus ending the cause for intervention by either Iraq or Iran and giving new life to the Kurdish opposition against Baghdad.

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The Kurdish clashes erupted over basic issues of territory and money, specifically border trade with Turkey that is estimated to provide hundreds of thousands of dollars in “taxes” collected by Kurdish militias, U.S. officials say. The isolated Kurds otherwise have limited sources of income and hard currency. Both factions also want control over Irbil.

In a sometimes dizzying array of charges and countercharges, both Iraq and Iran allege that the United States is intervening in the Kurdish area for its own aims.

Iran claimed that Washington provoked the fighting. “America is trying to cause new clashes in northern Iraq to pave the way for its presence in this region under the guise of mediation,” Tehran Radio charged this week.

Baghdad has asserted that Washington and Tehran are in cahoots. “The covetous intentions of the regime in Tehran . . . are in accord . . . with the aggressive targets of America against Iraq and its people,” Iraq’s official newspaper Al Thawra said Friday.

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