WASHINGTON — The standoff between Iraq and the United States intensified Saturday as Baghdad moved more troops close to the Kuwaiti border, and the Clinton Administration dispatched 4,000 soldiers to join U.S. ships and planes converging on the Persian Gulf.
U.S. officials reported Saturday that more than 14,000 troops from two mechanized divisions of Iraq's elite Republican Guard had joined other forces within 12 1/2 miles of the Kuwaiti border--bringing the number of Iraqi forces in the border area to up to 64,000.
The Pentagon said it was sending 4,000 soldiers from the Army's 24th Mechanized Division at Ft. Stewart, Ga., near Savannah, to Kuwait this morning, and it had placed the remainder of the unit, along with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Pendleton, Calif., on alert.
The Defense Department also deployed two more Patriot air-defense missile batteries to Saudi Arabia, and placed additional U.S. combat aircraft in Europe on alert, but officials declined to provide the names of the units or the number of planes involved.
The escalation by both sides represented a significant deterioration of the situation from only 24 hours earlier, when the United States first announced that it was sending forces in an attempt to deter the Iraqi troops.
Despite Baghdad's massed forces, analysts said an incursion may not be planned, and Iraq may simply be trying to pressure the United Nations into lifting its economic sanctions.
On Saturday, however, a grim-faced Marine Corps Lt. Gen. John Sheehan, operations director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that, although there still was no firm indication that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein planned to invade immediately, the forces he has deployed so far "clearly represent a threat" to Kuwait.
President Clinton, who went to the presidential retreat at Camp David, Md., for the weekend, reiterated his earlier warnings that it would be a "grave error" for Baghdad to underestimate U.S. resolve in preventing Iraq from invading Kuwait again.
Defense Secretary William J. Perry and Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stopped in Florida en route home from Haiti on Saturday to confer with Gen. J.H. Binford Peay III, head of the U.S. Central Command, which oversees operations in Kuwait.
Sheehan said orders for the Ft. Stewart and Camp Pendleton forces to deploy could come imminently, depending upon those discussions and others late Saturday night.
The size and makeup of the well-equipped, heavily armed Iraqi force is "similar to previous deployments we saw (in 1990) when they did go into Kuwait," Sheehan said. "They clearly have the capability to attack."
Sheehan noted pointedly that the United States now has enough warships in the region to fire 200 Tomahawk cruise missiles into Iraq.
"We clearly have the capacity to go to downtown Baghdad," he said. "That's one of the lessons I hope Saddam learned the last time we did this."
U.S. officials said Clinton and other top presidential policy-makers spent part of the day on the telephone conferring with their counterparts in Britain, France and other countries that had been part of the allied coalition that defeated Iraq in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
The U.S. concern was echoed by other powers with interests in the region. Both Britain and Russia issued stern warnings to Baghdad, and Britain sent a frigate to bolster its naval force in the Gulf. Kuwait dispatched 50 tanks to its border with Iraq and placed its armed forces on high alert. Saudi Arabia pledged to support U.S. troops.
In New York, the U.N. Security Council, in an unusual Saturday session, expressed grave concern over Iraq's actions and warned that the United Nations is still committed to protecting Kuwait's borders.
The action came after the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Madeleine Albright, unveiled satellite photographs showing Iraqi troop movements. Officials said France and Russia had obtained similar photographs from their own spy satellites.
Western analysts continued to be flabbergasted by Iraq's boldness in provoking the West, particularly since it is substantially weaker militarily than it was before its defeat in the Persian Gulf War.
The most frequently voiced theory is that Baghdad is trying to bully the U.N. Security Council into lifting sanctions imposed during the Gulf crisis of 1990. One of the curbs Iraq objects to most is the sanction prohibiting Baghdad from selling its oil on world markets except under a tight U.N. supervision in which all of the revenue would be devoted to humanitarian relief within Iraq and to payment of war reparations to Kuwait. Iraq has denounced the restrictions as a violation of its sovereignty and has refused to sell its oil under those conditions.