The White House vowed Sunday that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein would be punished for his attack on a safe haven in northern Iraq amid claims that Saddam’s elite Republican Guard had massacred nearly 100 army defectors and launched more attacks in the region.
U.S. officials said it appears the Iraqi president is preparing for retaliation by deploying surface-to-air missiles, dispersing his warplanes and putting the country’s air defense system on a higher state of alert.
A government newspaper in Baghdad warned the United States on Sunday to stay out of northern Iraq. “The Iraqi people, in the forefront Iraqi Kurds, are ready to provide an example that will inevitably remind the Americans of the Vietnam complex,” it editorialized.
Also Sunday, U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali suspended the recent agreement to allow Iraq to sell oil to raise cash for food and medicine.
In a statement, Boutros-Ghali said he had decided to suspend the sale because of “the deterioration of the situation in northern Iraq.”
Despite an initial pledge to withdraw from Irbil, Iraq appeared to expand its attack Sunday and shelled at least one other city, having allied itself with forces from the Kurdistan Democratic Party against its rival faction, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.
White House chief of staff Leon Panetta suggested the administration would punish Iraq for the incursion into its Kurdish north - either militarily or diplomatically.
“I don’t want to say when or where or what, but … there will be a response. Saddam Hussein continues to remain a threat to his own people and to the region, and we have made it clear that this is unacceptable,” Panetta said.
The more than 300 U.S. warplanes and 20 warships in the region were on a high state of alert Sunday, and an alarmed Turkey shipped reinforcements to its border with Iraq, demanding an Iraqi withdrawal from the region.
U.S., French and British flights over the area were doubled Sunday.
Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole blamed the crisis on the “failure of American leadership” in dealing with Iraq. He said President Clinton unwisely acquiesced to the relaxing of sanctions on Iraqi oil sales and did little recently to protest Saddam’s continued obstruction of nuclear weapons inspectors except to “join in weak statements by the U.N. Security Council.”
In response, presidential spokesman Mike McCurry said: “I would only suggest to him that this is a moment in which it is best for the United States of America to speak with one common voice in making clear that this unjustified behavior is unacceptable.”
Clinton called world leaders in hopes of garnering support for a response to the Iraqi attack on the Kurdish area, which has been protected by a U.S.-led coalition since Saddam’s last major offensive to put down a Kurdish rebellion there in the wake of his defeat in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
Although Iraqi troops technically are not restricted from being deployed there, the U.N. Security Council set up a “no-fly” zone above the 36th parallel prohibiting Iraqi warplanes from entering the region, and Iraqi troops by and large had avoided the sector until last week.
Irbil, a key Kurdish city 12 miles north of the 36th parallel, was overrun by a tank-led Iraqi force early Saturday.
A Pentagon official indicated the U.S. response might be beyond the immediate crisis area. “Saddam has a proclivity to bully. We will respond in ways that constrain his ability to act and in ways that protect our vital interests,” he said.
Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz said Baghdad was responding to a request from the Democratic Party of Kurdistan to intervene against the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which long has held Irbil and recently received limited Iranian aid and arms.
A Patriotic Union spokesman said secret police were going house to house with lists of Saddam’s opponents and that troops had blown up the headquarters of opposition political parties.
Iraqi troops executed defectors from Saddam’s army who were captured in a lightning attack on a camp outside Irbil, opposition and Iraqi Kurdish officials said.
“Ninety-six soldiers and officers were executed … in full view of the residents of Qushtapa,” 15 miles south of Irbil, a spokesman for the opposition Iraqi National Congress, a U.S.-backed and CIA-funded coalition of Iraqi opposition groups, said in London.
As Patriotic Union leader Jalal Talabani also reported armor movements and artillery shelling of villages near his stronghold at Suleymaniyeh, U.S. officials asserted that Saddam was preparing to defend Irbil from American retaliation.
“There are signs that Iraq expects a U.S. military response and is taking steps to counter it,” an administration official said. “If we were to take military steps, there are signs that he might attempt to resist.”
The Clinton administration remained highly secretive about its own activities Sunday after officials from the president on down addressed the growing crisis.
Saturday, the president ordered reinforcements, including an Air Expeditionary Force, to be sent to the Middle East. The expeditionary force most likely will go to Jordan and will be in place no later than Tuesday, Pentagon officials said.
Kurdish and U.S. officials expressed deep concern Sunday that Iraq’s offensive may not end at Irbil as Saddam looks at the possibility of moving farther in the next few days.