The Clinton administration said Friday that it will send 5,000 U.S. Army troops to Kuwait and 18 F-16C fighters to Saudi Arabia over the weekend as part of a continuing military buildup in preparation for possible expanded attacks against Iraq.
Officials said the decision to send the troops, announced late Friday, was intended to underscore warnings to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein that Washington is serious about its demands that he follow international restrictions imposed after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
The White House also said Friday that it was sending Defense Secretary William J. Perry to Europe and the Middle East this weekend to try to shore up support among U.S. allies for the hard-line stance Washington has adopted since Iraq attacked Kurds late last month.
The decision reflected growing concern among top policy-makers about the reluctance of traditional U.S. allies in both regions to support expected U.S. military strikes against Iraq.
The announcements followed a hectic, seesaw day in which the administration continued its military buildup but sought to tone down its hawkish rhetoric after a surprise signal from Baghdad that U.S. warnings have been effective.
Iraq announced that, as a start toward possible negotiation, it would stop firing missiles at U.S. and other allied aircraft patrolling “no-fly” zones in the country. But it later threatened to revoke the offer if the allies resumed their patrols.
U.S. officials said they found the Iraqi offer to stop firing missiles “an encouraging move toward reducing tensions” but gave no indication that the administration was willing to call off the expected round of military attacks.
The troops heading for Kuwait make up the 3rd Brigade of the 1st Cavalry Division at Fort Hood, Texas. They will be supplied with weapons and equipment in storage in the two countries, including 120 M1A1 tanks and 60 M2A2 Bradley fighting vehicles.
There was no indication how long the 5,000 U.S. soldiers would remain in Kuwait or how they would be used if the United States launched the attacks that officials have threatened. Until Friday, planners had pointed to airstrikes as the most likely tactic.
Pentagon officials said the troops were being sent to Kuwait as an “exercise” to join some 1,200 other soldiers in Kuwait who since August have been engaging in war games that are scheduled to end in midDecember.
Army officers said the brigade consists of two “maneuver battalions” of between 800 and 900 soldiers each to man the tanks and armored vehicles as well as a field headquarters unit and units trained to operate self-propelled artillery and shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles.
The deployment also includes service and support personnel, such as maintenance and refueling teams. “You’ve got 2,000 to 2,500 ‘shooters’ and an equal number of supporters,” said Lt. Col. Ray Whitehead, an Army spokesman.
Perry is to fly to three Middle Eastern countries - Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait - and on to Turkey. He plans to return via London, where he will meet with British and French officials.
U.S. officials conceded that his mission will be difficult. France has been conspicuously cool to the U.S. military push, temporarily refusing to continue helping to enforce the southern “no-fly” zone after Washington’s recent launch of cruise missiles against Iraq.
And Saudi Arabia and Turkey both have refused to permit U.S. forces to launch military strikes against Iraq from bases on their soil. Both countries had served as bases for U.S. warplanes during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
Although the administration did not shelve its plans for a military strike, officials Friday stepped back from the barrage of hawkish warnings directed at Hussein earlier in the week as the United States began moving more ships and aircraft to the region.
Officials also conceded it may take more time than had been expected to assemble the forces needed to carry out a new, expanded attack.