President Saddam Hussein could use the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which begins next week, to further conceal Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons from U.N. inspectors, the general in charge of American forces in the Persian Gulf area said Saturday.
Marine Corps Gen. Anthony Zinni, setting out on a four-day regional tour, predicted a quiet Ramadan militarily but warned that Iraq may use the lull against the international inspections by agents of the U.N. special commission, or UNSCOM.
“If they are hiding things and moving things, (Ramadan) could give them the time and the cover to do it,” Zinni told reporters traveling with him to this sprawling air base, from which U.S. warplanes conduct deny-flight missions over Iraq. “The longer we go without inspections in places that UNSCOM really, truly expects something might be hidden, the better the chance is that something could be hidden to the point where we could get a cold trail and lose it.”
The United States and U.N. allies have been pressing Iraq to open scores of sensitive sights to weapons inspection, including some of Saddam’s presidential palaces. Though Iraq has given ground to inspectors recently, it has declared many sites strictly off limits and denied it holds chemical or biological weapons.
Ramadan, marked by daytime fasting, is the most sacred month of Islam’s lunar calendar. It begins next Wednesday at the latest.
During the holy period, when daytime activity in most Muslim countries tapers off significantly, Iraqi officials probably will be unavailable to escort inspection teams, Zinni said. The Iraqi military probably will lie dormant, and the chance of U.S. military action is remote.
“I doubt seriously that we would do anything during Ramadan,” Zinni said. “Because of the way they do Ramadan, they virtually shut down. … Militarily, it means we ‘re probably going to be frozen in place for that period.”
Zinni, a blunt, stocky officer whose hair is burred in a regulation Marine crew cut, heads the U.S. Central Command, a military headquarters based in Tampa, Fla., responsible for an arc of countries stretching from Kenya and Somalia in East Africa, across the Middle East, to Iraq and Iran athwart the Persian Gulf. It is the position held by Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf during the Persian Gulf War, and if tension with Iraq should rise to the point of conflict, Zinni would be the commander in charge.
A priority for Zinni is to ensure that leaders in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and other gulf countries support the regional U.S. military posture.
In a recent Pentagon news conference, he said that contrary to media reports, friendly gulf states are willing to support heavy retaliation to an Iraqi provocation, for example the targeting of an American U-2 spy plane flying reconnaissance missions for the United Nations.
During the in-flight interview, however, Zinni struck a cautionary note emphasizing that the gulf allies want to avoid conflict with Iraq. Short of such an Iraqi provocation, he said, their support for U.S. military strikes would by no means be assured.
“They would not like to see it ever have to come to the point where we have to use military force,” Zinni said. A U.S. decision to strike Iraq without an Iraqi provocation “would be a hard decision for them to support. I’m not saying it’s impossible. It’s going to have to be looked at case by case …, but it’s going to be one that’s going to be difficult for them. It’s something that they really fear and they don’t want to see happen.”
Primarily, U.S. forces are in the Persian Gulf to protect U.S. energy supplies, Zinni said. The 30,000 or so Americans also are to defend gulf states against Iraq’s still-formidable military.
But the U.S. presence remains a touchy issue in the region, with gulf states anxious to avoid angering Baghdad or to appear to be siding with the United States against fellow Muslims.
Because of this political sensitivity, some gulf states were anxious to keep publicity surrounding Zinni’s visit to a minimum.
An ever-present terrorist threat against U.S. forces in the gulf is only the most palpable indicator of that sensitivity. Even in a trip built around visits with U.S. troops at well-guarded installations, the security surrounding Zinni’s movements was heavy.
The following fields overflowed: DATELINE = PRINCE SULTAN AIR BASE, SAUDI ARABIA