Radar-evading F-117 jet fighters sent to Kuwait in September when Iraq was threatening American warplanes will remain here indefinitely as a warning to Baghdad, Defense Secretary William J. Perry announced Friday. But 4,200 U.S. ground troops are to be withdrawn as scheduled next month.
The United States also plans to bring home in December a squadron of F-16 jet fighters positioned in the Persian Gulf nation of Bahrain when the threat of a new confrontation with Iraq appeared to be mounting, defense officials said.
The combination of moves reflected a judgment by the Pentagon that tensions in the gulf region have eased enough to lighten reinforcements sent originally in preparation for an air strike on Iraqi targets. A second aircraft carrier and several B-52 bombers, which also had been poised to attack in September, were withdrawn earlier.
Even with the withdrawals, however, the presence in the gulf of U.S. air and sea forces will remain formidable, Perry stressed, and Army troops are scheduled to return to Kuwait in February for another - although smaller - round of desert maneuvers.
At the time the extra forces were dispatched, Iraqi forces shot some missiles at U.S. aircraft to protest extension of a ban on flights by Iraqi military aircraft over southern Iraq. The United States had extended the southern “no-fly” zone to the outskirts of Baghdad and fired cruise missiles at Iraqi air defenses in response to an Iraqi army move into northern Iraq’s Kurdish territory.
Shortly after the F-117s arrived in Kuwait, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein announced an end to threatening action against U.S. and other allied planes enforcing the no-fly zone, and the United States refrained from launching another airstrike. Except for an occasional targeting of U.S. aircraft with radar from mobile missile batteries, Iraq has avoided further threats to U.S. planes.
On a two-day tour in the region to inspect U.S. forces and consult with Arab leaders, Perry declared that the eight F-117s are staying as a reminder to Saddam of America’s military punch.
The batwinged aircraft’s ability to penetrate thick air defense systems like those around Baghdad has given it a fearsome aura beyond its specific military usefulness. The decision to keep the planes in place appeared intended not only to intimidate Iraq but also to reassure Kuwait and other Arab allies of the Clinton administration’s continuing commitment to the oil-rich gulf’s security and stability following the U.S. elections.
In visits Friday with the leaders of Kuwait and Qatar, Perry said he reaffirmed this commitment. Kuwait’s defense minister, Salem Sabah, joined Perry at a news conference here endorsing the F-117 decision.
The United States has maintained a sizable military force in the gulf since the 1991 war, justifying it as a deterrent against both Iraq and Iran. More than 100 U.S. combat aircraft are based in Saudi Arabia, and an aircraft carrier often is in the gulf, along with about two dozen other warships.
About 1,200 U.S. ground troops regularly trains in Kuwait. Another 3,000 were sent in September. All are to withdraw.