UNITED NATIONS — The United States announced Tuesday that it was sending two battalions of Patriot missile systems to the Middle East on a day when Iraq again detained a U.N. nuclear inspection team in an action condemned by the Security Council.
Iraq capitulated late Tuesday to U.N. demands that it provide unrestricted helicopter flights for the inspectors. But the Iraqis' decision to interfere with the 44-member U.N. team in Baghdad angered members of the Security Council.
The Patriot force--roughly 24 launchers with 100 missiles operated by 1,300 soldiers--was sent from Germany and was expected to arrive in Saudi Arabia today. Pentagon officials described the dispatch of the Patriot system, designed to protect military areas against incoming missiles and aircraft, as a step aimed at paving the way for the introduction of more forces into Saudi Arabia, chiefly warplanes.
The American deployment, though anticipated, was yet another sign of the growing resolve to keep the pressure on Iraq to abide by the U.N. resolutions that ended the Gulf War.
The Iraqis accused the U.N. inspectors of being spies. But the Security Council condemned Iraq for preventing them "from carrying out their duty" under U.N. resolutions calling for the destruction of all of Iraq's capability for producing weapons of mass destruction.
The 44-member team was intercepted by dozens of armed Iraqi guards outside a building in Baghdad after the inspectors copied documents they said provided detailed evidence of Iraq's attempts to build a nuclear warhead.
As the inspectors remained confined in their vehicles deep into the night, the Security Council, in a statement read by French Ambassador Jean-Bernard Merimee, the council president, demanded that "the inspection team be immediately allowed to leave the site where they are kept without any conditions, and in particular that they can take with them all the documents they deem appropriate."
In Washington, Pentagon officials said the Patriot missile systems could be operational by late this week. The Pentagon also awaited orders to dispatch as many as 72 warplanes to join about 200 combat aircraft already in place in the Persian Gulf region.
Pentagon officials stressed that for military as well as diplomatic reasons, no new warplanes are expected to arrive in Saudi Arabia until the Patriots are functioning there.
A military official said that having the Patriot batteries in place and operational before any other forces were deployed was "just a prudent step" in light of Iraq's continued possession of Scud missiles.
One knowledgeable coalition government official said Tuesday that Washington still is uncertain how far it would go if a hostile Iraqi act against U.S. forces were to reopen combat operations.
But Bush Administration officials are considering launching air strikes designed to disrupt normal operations in Iraq and further erode popular support for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, the official said. The official added that others in the Administration have argued for a more limited military strike, focused on destroying Iraq's remaining nuclear, chemical and biological facilities, as well as the command centers from which the government of Hussein rules.
Earlier, Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations, Abdul Amir Anbari, had said the U.N. inspectors would not be freed until they surrendered the documents and videotapes made during the latest search.
President Bush used stark language to condemn the Iraqi move as "very serious business." He said of Hussein: "That man doesn't play by the rules."
Despite the contrary views of some senior advisers, the President continued to assert confidence that Hussein would ultimately back down. "He'll get the message," Bush said during a meeting here with President Carlos Andres Perez of Venezuela.
The accusation of espionage against the head of the U.N. inspection team, David A. Kay, a Houston native, marked a bitter turn in an already tense relationship between the Baghdad regime and those assigned to monitor its military dismantlement.
U.S. government spokesmen in Washington dismissed as nonsense the charge raised in a news conference in Baghdad by Deputy Prime Minister Tarik Aziz, who asserted that the documents sought by Kay and his team were "for CIA purposes."
Although the Iraqis took a hard line on the inspectors and the documents, Merimee announced that Baghdad had sent the Security Council a letter that council members considered "an unconditional acceptance of resolution 707," which demands the unrestricted use of helicopters to scour Iraq for evidence of weapons programs.
Council sources said the Iraqis had sent an earlier letter that was deemed unacceptable and was returned. The Iraqis then delivered the second letter that satisfied U.N. demands on the issue of the helicopter flights.