Iraqi President Saddam Hussein defied U.S. warnings Saturday and sent armored columns into a northern Kurdish enclave, overrunning the city of Irbil and triggering a new confrontation with the United States and its allies.
President Clinton voiced “grave concern” about the Iraqi thrust, put U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf region on “high alert” and ordered unspecified reinforcements. But the United States took no military action Saturday against Iraq, and administration officials said they were reviewing options and deliberating with allies about how to respond.
Iraq’s swift assault took Saddam over a line the United States had insisted he not cross and propelled his army, for the first time since 1991, into an area of Iraq populated mainly by 3.5 million Kurds who U.S.-led forces are pledged to assist.
But unlike five years ago, when Saddam’s troops stormed into northern Iraq to put down a united Kurdish rebellion, Saturday’s assault came in the more complex context of a divided Kurdish community and attempts by Iraq and Iran to exploit the split.
Iraq claimed it had invaded at the invitation of Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani, who has been feuding for control with archrival Jalal Talabani, whose group recently received help from Iran. Forces loyal to Barzani were widely reported to have participated with Saddam’s troops in taking Irbil, a Talabani stronghold.
“If there’s any blame for what happened, some of it rests with the power struggle among the Kurds,” said a U.S. official familiar with administration deliberations. “We’ve tried to get the Kurds to stay together, but one got in bed with Saddam, the other with Iran.”
Nonetheless, administration officials said the United States has an interest in doing something to counter Saddam’s aggression.
“There is a compelling interest which arises from the fact that one more time Saddam Hussein has shown he’s prepared to use force to change the status quo and to advance his own agenda,” said a senior administration official in Washington.
“In this case, he’s used it against his own people. This is a dangerous man, and therefore this is a serious development.”
A senior administration official traveling with Clinton, who was campaigning in Kentucky and Tennessee, said the president had received a list of recommended diplomatic and military options from his staff. Asked whether military action was imminent, the official said, “Not at all.”
Republican presidential candidate Robert J. Dole acknowledged “a complicated situation,” but said Clinton should block the impending resumption of Iraqi oil sales. The U.N. Security Council recently approved sale of $1 billion worth of Iraqi oil every 90 days, provided the funds go into a U.N. escrow account to feed the Kurds and other Iraqis. Dole called relaxation of the ban on oil sales “premature and ill-advised.”
Accounts from eyewitnesses in Irbil described heavy shelling of the city, numerous casualties and fleeing residents. Three armored divisions of more than 30,000 soldiers from Iraq’s Republican Guard spearheaded the assault.
“Shelling has been continuous for about five-and-a-half hours. They are not distinguishing between military and civilian areas,” Ahmed Allawi of the opposition Iraqi National Congress told the Reuter news service from Irbil. “There are too many fires and too much smoke.”
As tanks and armored vehicles rolled into the city, there were reports of house-to-house searches and atrocities.
“They’re pulling people from their homes and executing them,” said Kathryn Porter, president of the Human Rights Alliance, who spoke by phone with Talabani’s wife in Irbil Saturday. She said city residents fear that if they try to flee, Iraqi forces will kill them.
By evening, firing had become sporadic, and U.S. officials said Iraqi forces controlled all routes in and out of Irbil, whose population once numbered about 800,000.
As for Saddam’s next move, a senior administration official said “there was no hard information whether or not this is a first step in a broader campaign.”
Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan appealed for foreign intervention to prevent a “humanitarian catastrophe.” The group said the attack could be a prelude to revival of the Iraqi government’s “genocidal war” against the Kurds, who are seeking independence from Baghdad.
Clinton, speaking at a stop on a campaign bus tour in Tennessee, said, “It is premature at this time, and I want to emphasize that, entirely premature to speculate on any response we might have. But we are prepared to deal with these developments.”
The Iraqi assault was mounted by the largest military force Saddam has arrayed against the Kurds since early 1991 when, in the wake of his loss of Kuwait to U.S.-led coalition forces, he sent troops north to put down a Kurdish rebellion.
Irbil lies about 12 miles north of the 36th parallel, the line that Iraqi military aircraft have been barred by allied forces from crossing since the 1991 episode.
U.S. officials Saturday said there was no evidence Iraqi aircraft had violated the zone, although there were reports of some helicopter activity around the 36th parallel. The United States and its allies have never barred Iraqi ground forces from entering Kurdish territory.
But U.S. officials said Iraq’s seizure of Irbil violated U.N. Resolution 688, adopted in April 1991, which condemned Saddam’s suppression of the Kurds and demanded the Iraqi leader respect the human and political rights of all his country’s citizens. The resolution served as the basis for establishment of the no-fly zone not only in the north but also one in the south, below the 32nd parallel, populated by a substantial number of Shiite Muslims hostile to Saddam.
Talabani told Reuter by telephone from Irbil that he had warned Washington three days in advance that the Iraqi forces were prepared to attack the city.
“The Americans promised to attack them (the Iraqis). They did not act decisively,” the Kurdish leader said.
A senior U.S. official denied that Talabani was given any assurances of military intervention.
Asked if the administration had reacted too slowly in trying to head off the Iraqi attack, the official said Washington had not been sure at first what to make of the troop movements, particularly their relationship to recent fighting between Kurdish factions.
In addition to the problem of sorting out the military situation, administration officials also were forced to grapple with the fact that the fighting involved Kurdish forces on both sides, one of which is working with Iraqi forces.
“The difficulty of this situation is underscored by fact that it does appear there is some cooperation between some Kurdish elements and Iraqis,” a senior official said. “This is not a case of solely an incursion by Iraqi forces.
As possible reinforcements for the roughly 200 warplanes and 21 ships in the Persian Gulf region, the Pentagon has alerted air and naval forces in the United States to prepare for deployment.
A fleet of about three dozen Air Force jet fighters and support aircraft from bases in Virginia, South Carolina and North Carolina, plus four B-52 bombers, were notified to be ready to move on short notice, defense officials said.
The aircraft carrier USS Enterprise in the eastern Mediterranean has been told to be ready to steam to the Red Sea; another carrier, the USS Carl Vinson, is in the Arabian Sea, close enough to Iraq to strike.
The Pentagon also told a Marine Amphibious Ready Group of seaborne troops to be ready in case called upon. One such group of Marines already is afloat in the Arabian Sea.
Clinton plans to cut short his weekend of campaigning and return to Washington late Monday, a day ahead of schedule. But officials said the change in plans had nothing to do with the military situation in Iraq. A senior official said the president is enjoying the bus tour, and the campaign is important to the country.
“We’re not going to give Saddam Hussein the satisfaction of interfering with that process,” he said.
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