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Commander Discounts a U.S. 1st Strike at Iraq : Strategy: He says Iraq would pay 'a terrible price' if it attacks. Other officers say that probably would trigger an all-out response.

September 01, 1990|MICHAEL ROSS and MELISSA HEALY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia — The commander of U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia appeared Friday to rule out the possibility of a preemptive strike against Iraq, saying, "There is not going to be any war unless the Iraqis attack."

The officer, Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of the U.S. Central Command, refused to say how the United States and allied forces in the area would respond if the Iraqis attack. But other senior U.S. officials in Saudi Arabia have said the response would likely be an "all-out" offensive aimed at defeating the Iraqis in as short a time as possible.

Schwarzkopf told reporters that most of the war scenarios being discussed are "speculative."

"What I can tell you," he said, "is that we know exactly what we are going to do if an attack occurs."

Emphasizing what is still the defensive nature of the incomplete U.S. deployment in Saudi Arabia, Schwarzkopf said he is confident that an Iraqi attack could be repulsed.

"I am confident of our ability to defend (Saudi Arabia) right now," he said. " . . . If the Iraqis are dumb enough to attack, they are going to pay a terrible price for it."

Earlier in the day, at a meeting with troops in the field, Schwarzkopf was more prosaic on that point. Talking with aircraft maintenance crews at a desert air base, he said that if the enemy invades, "We're going to kick his butt."

Officials here have provided no figures, but an estimated 60,000 U.S. troops are now believed in Saudi Arabia, with another 40,000 on the way.

Already on the ground here are M-1 and M-60 tanks, as well as hundreds of tank-killing aircraft. Officials are anxiously awaiting the arrival of hundreds more tanks and other equipment.

Until more men and equipment arrive, other officials have suggested, the U.S. force level in Saudi Arabia is not adequate to consider taking large-scale offensive action.

Schwarzkopf refused to say at what point that level might be reached. However, he said, he is "extremely pleased" with the pace of the buildup, which he described as the largest deployment of U.S. forces ever undertaken in such a short period of time.

"It's going extremely well," he said. "We're absolutely on schedule. In fact, we're a little ahead of schedule. The flow is continuing, and the flow will continue. Every day I feel less threatened, because every day we're stronger."

Schwarzkopf, wearing a desert camouflage uniform and a pistol, spent most of the day visiting Army, Air Force and Marine bases in the desert.

"Ready to do the job?" he asked Staff Sgt. John Frady, a member of a maintenance platoon with the 101st Airborne air assault brigade.

"Ready to go to war, sir," Frady answered.

"I feel a lot better now that you're here," Schwarzkopf told one of the crews that maintain A-10 anti-tank aircraft. "There was never any doubt in my mind that we were going to get air superiority, but what I needed in here was tank killers."

The Iraqis are estimated to have 1,500 tanks in Kuwait. Although most of them are believed to be older Soviet T-54 and T-62 tanks--military sources say the Iraqis' newer T-72s are still in Iraq--they greatly outnumber the several hundred M-60 and M-1 tanks the Americans here have at the moment.

But military commanders say they are confident they can stop any tank-led assault with the arsenal of "tank killers" now available to them: A-10 aircraft, TOW and Dragon anti-tank missile batteries and AH-1 Cobra and AH-64 Apache helicopters.

Schwarzkopf was asked if he is concerned about the fact that the A-10 and some of the other advanced weaponry has not been tested in combat, and he said he is "supremely confident" in both the weaponry and the soldiers using them.

"We've been training for a very long time to fight against a numerically superior enemy, so this is not a new experience," he said.

As for the soldiers themselves, and their reaction to the fierce desert heat, he said: "They are not potted plants. They've trained for this environment. They know how to operate in it, and they're very, very tough folks."

Elsewhere in the desert, U.S. Marines were given permission Friday to fire live ammunition to enable them to adjust the sights on their artillery and tank-mounted guns.

Col. Carl Fulford of the 77th Marine Regimental Combat Team, normally based at Twentynine Palms, Calif., said the Marines had been "pushing for a long time" to fire their weapons for this purpose, because much of their equipment has been in storage for extended periods. He said that King Fahd himself had to give his approval.

Meanwhile, U.S. troops started taking up desert positions for the first time since arriving.

According to Fulford and other officers, Marine units will be expected to defend the sectors closest to the Persian Gulf, while Army units, including the 24th Mechanized Infantry Division, will take up positions inland.

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