KUWAIT — The Kuwaiti government said Monday that it will not provide air or naval bases to U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf but left open the possibility of providing "facilities" to American forces escorting Kuwaiti oil tankers.
Addressing a lengthy news conference here, Kuwait's prime minister, Sheik Saad al Abdullah al Sabah, expressed his nation's gratitude to the United States and other powers for agreeing to help Kuwait in the current Persian Gulf crisis.
But Saad said the so-called "reflagging" of Kuwaiti tankers with American flags was "a purely commercial transaction," and he disassociated Kuwait from the potential consequences of the escort operation, especially a military confrontation with Iran.
"These are now American vessels," Saad said, speaking in English. "They will fly American flags. I am sure and have no doubt the Americans will defend the American flag."
The United States is re-registering 11 Kuwaiti tankers, entitling them to U.S. naval escorts in the gulf. The first ship, renamed Bridgeton, a 401,000-ton supertanker, will be officially reflagged today, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater announced in Washington Monday. He declined to say when the ship would sail under Navy escort. It is expected to enter the Persian Gulf from the Gulf of Oman later this week.
A second Kuwaiti ship, a tanker renamed the Gas Prince, was also ready Monday to enter the gulf. Shipping sources in Dubai said American captains have taken command of both ships, the last step necessary before the U.S. flag can be formally hoisted on the two vessels,
In addition, Kuwait has chartered three tankers from the Soviet Union, which has sent four warships to the gulf. Kuwait also has chartered three other tankers in Britain, which maintains a small naval force at the mouth of the gulf.
Saad, who is also Kuwait's crown prince--a cousin of the ruling emir--said that his country was forced to turn abroad for help after Iran "threatened daily to aggress and attack Kuwaiti vessels" entering and leaving the gulf. He said that a total of 50 ships have been attacked entering or leaving Kuwaiti ports, including 10 Kuwaiti flag vessels.
He said that Kuwait was not responsible for bringing foreign navies to the gulf, noting that the United States has maintained warships here since the 1940s.
Saad expressed hope that Iran would accept a cease-fire call contained in a resolution adopted unanimously Monday by the U.N. Security Council.
He also reiterated Kuwaiti support for Iraq in the long war between Iraq and non-Arab Iran, saying: "Iraq must not be alone in this battle. Iraq is part of the Arab nation. An aggression or occupation of a piece of Iraq is an aggression or occupation of the Arab world."
While never acknowledging that it attacks Kuwaiti shipping, Iran has been applying pressure against Kuwait because of its support for Iraq's war effort. This includes providing financial aid and letting Kuwaiti ports be used to transship Soviet weapons destined for Baghdad.
Concern Over Air Cover
Recently, increasing concerns have been expressed in the U.S. Congress that the nine vessels in the U.S. force in the gulf could be endangered by lack of sufficient cover from American fighter planes, since the United States maintains no air bases in the Persian Gulf region.
The U.S. Navy has sent an additional six ships to the Arabian Sea, including the aircraft carrier Constellation, which has recently sent jet fighters over the gulf for limited periods of time.
Asked whether Kuwait would consider providing bases to U.S. forces escorting reflagged Kuwaiti ships, Saad said that "we are not ready to offer air bases or naval bases. Whether Kuwait will be able to offer certain facilities with regard to other cases . . . this will be discussed later with Kuwaiti officials."
Western diplomats here said that in raising the possibility of providing "facilities," the Kuwaitis were talking only about the provision of fuel and water, which the U.S. Navy will have to pay for.
"No proposal has been made for any regular support facilities for aircraft," one diplomat said.
The diplomat added that there may be an "ongoing role" for members of an 18-man U.S. Navy mine countermeasures team that helped Kuwait remove eight Iranian mines from its offshore waters Sunday. Two Saudi Arabian minesweepers are remaining here as well, the official said.
Saad disclosed that Kuwait is not paying the costs of the U.S. escort operation in the gulf, saying it was not "Kuwait's concern."
Asked if the Kuwaiti government trusted the United States, he replied: "We are friends. We have to trust each other. If we don't trust each other, how could we live?"