President Clinton signaled with words and with the dispatch of an aircraft carrier Friday that the United States is prepared to act - with or without its allies - to prevent Iraq from developing the ability to use chemical or biological weapons.
A day after the United Nations withdrew its weapons inspection team following Iraq’s expulsion of the six American members, Clinton ordered the aircraft carrier George Washington and four other ships to the Persian Gulf, joining a fleet led by the carrier Nimitz.
The redeployment, a potent symbol, it also served a practical purpose, military officials said, bolstering the ability to strike Iraq hard, even if neighboring countries refuse permission to stage attacks from or over their territories.
Adding to an intensifying sense of confrontation, Clinton appeared twice at the White House on Friday to issue stern warnings to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to back down and allow U.N. inspectors to resume their searches. He called Iraq’s pursuit of major weapons systems “one of the three or four most significant security threats that all of our people will face.”
At one point Clinton suggested that the United States was prepared to maintain sanctions against Iraq as long as Saddam remained.
Referring to Saddam’s decision to expel the American inspectors, Clinton said, “What he has just done is to insure that the sanctions will be there till the end of time, or as long as he lasts.”
One of the biggest hurdles the administration faces in garnering support for punishing Iraq has been a growing sense that the sanctions are hurting ordinary Iraqis, and a growing realization that Saddam has little reason to cooperate, given the the dim prospects that the sanctions will be lifted soon.
The president’s remarks undercut those diplomatic efforts, which continued with some urgency Friday.
Clinton met at the White House with King Hussein of Jordan, who “loosely related” the lack of support from Arab allies to frustration over the stalled Middle East peace talks, a senior administration official said.
In Scotland, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright met with British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, who announced that Britain had ordered the aircraft carrier Invincible to the Mediterranean from the Caribbean and put a squadron of Harrier jets on heightened alert.
“Our strategy is to combine intensive diplomacy with a robust military presence in the Gulf, which we are convinced is the best way to convince Saddam Hussein to reverse course,” Albright said in London, where she met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in an attempt to revive the peace talks.
It will take at least a week for the George Washington to reach the Persian Gulf. Short of a direct Iraqi threat to U.S. aircraft - including U-2 spy planes, which are to resume flying over central Iraq for the United Nations as early as Sunday - it does not appear military action is imminent.
But in Iraq, the government appeared to be bracing for an attack. Television broadcasts show families gathering in one of Saddam’s palaces to act as shields, for example.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Iraq chronology Some key U.S.-Iraqi confrontations since the 1991 Persian Gulf War: Aug. 2, 1992 A “no-fly” zone is imposed over southern Iraq to stop air attacks on Shiite Muslim rebels. United States and some allies begin air patrols, which continue. Dec. 28, 1992 - U.S. plane shoots down Iraqi MiG-25 violating no-fly zone. Jan. 7, 1993 - After Baghdad refuses to remove missiles that the United States says it has moved into southern Iraq, allied warplanes and warships attack missile sites and a nuclear facility near Baghdad. June 27, 1993 - U.S. warships fire 24 cruise missiles at intelligence headquarters in Baghdad in retaliation for what the United States calls a plot to assassinate former President Bush. By Iraqi count, eight die. Oct. 7, 1994 - Iraqi troops move toward Kuwait, then pull back when the United States dispatches carrier group, 54,000 troops and warplanes. Aug. 31, 1996 - Saddam Hussein sends Iraqi forces into northern Iraq, capturing Irbil, a key city inside the Kurdish “safe haven” protected by U.S.-led forces. Sept. 3-4, 1996 - U.S. ships and airplanes fire scores of cruise missiles at military targets in a move to punish the Iraq military and discourage it from following Saddam. Clinton extends the southern no-fly zone to the suburbs of Baghdad.