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BUILDUP IN THE PERSIAN GULF : Kuwaitis Skeptical of Iraqi Pullback Claim : Security: Officials say only proof will satisfy them. They also want U.S. to help ensure their long-term safety.


KUWAIT CITY — Kuwait reacted with sharp skepticism Monday to Iraq's declaration that it was pulling its troops back from their tense border, and warned that such a move alone would not be enough to end the new Gulf crisis.

"If they pulled back their forces a few kilometers to the north, they could come back in a couple of days," said Saud al Sabah, Kuwait's information minister. "This is a cat-and-mouse game with us, and we can't tolerate it. . . .

"We cannot, and the international community cannot, take these statements seriously. We will believe them when we see them. . . . We want to see facts taking place on the ground and corroborated by satellites and intelligence."

Ahmed Hamoud al Sabah, the defense minister, said neither his forces nor U.S. intelligence had any evidence that Iraqi troops, put at 80,000 men with 700 tanks, had started to withdraw to positions deeper inside Iraq.

Kuwait, however, wants more than just an Iraqi retreat, officials said as they evaluated Baghdad's latest statements, for that would do little to ensure the oil-rich emirate's long-term security.

"Saddam Hussein has shown that he can put a gun to our heads anytime he wants," a member of the Kuwaiti Parliament said after a lengthy closed-door discussion of security preparations. "It's really not enough that he didn't pull the trigger today. We want to know that he won't pull it tomorrow."

Sheik Saad al Abdullah al Sabah, the crown prince and prime minister, had told the emergency session of Parliament that Kuwaitis need not fear a repetition of Iraq's 1990 brutal seizure and occupation of their country--that the world would not permit another takeover.

"The military situation has changed a lot in Kuwait's favor, and it will continue doing so in coming hours," Saad said as the first 300 combat troops from the U.S. Army's 24th Mechanized Division arrived here by air from Ft. Stewart, Ga., and American and British warships took up positions in the Persian Gulf.

Encouraged by the Clinton Administration's tough line, Kuwaiti officials said they will press Secretary of State Warren Christopher when he arrives here Wednesday for a strategy that will ensure Kuwait's long-term security without establishing a large and permanent U.S. presence in the Gulf, without subjecting Washington to the vagaries of Iraqi policies and without requiring costly troop deployments.

"Sooner or later we have to get rid of this dictator," the prince said of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. "The whole international community would like to get rid of Saddam Hussein."

Other officials stressed the need for measures that would prevent Iraq from escalating tensions as it has this week--or at least punish it for doing so.

"If Iraq can cause an international crisis by such so-called maneuvering its forces within its borders, then there must be restraints on such actions," a senior Kuwaiti diplomat said.

"We have said all this before, but perhaps now the dangers are clearer to everyone. This is what we will put before Christopher."

The secretary of state will meet here with the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates as well as Kuwait on Wednesday as part of his visit to the Middle East.

Although his stop here was intended to show U.S. solidarity for Kuwait in the current crisis, the six Arab states would like to transform that support into a permanent deterrent to Iraq. Kuwait also hopes, diplomats said, that the United States will be able to reconstitute much of the broad coalition it led during the Persian Gulf War.

In his address to Parliament before the closed session, Saad said that "there is no reason for worry or fear," continuing the government's efforts to reassure a nation traumatized by the 1990-91 occupation.

Kuwait's allies will remain fully deployed, he said, until "everybody is sure that these Iraqi troops that have converged (on the border) from different places have gone back to where they were before."

Kuwait's own 18,000 troops are fully deployed along its northern frontier and are most immediately concerned about the 20,000 men staying in an Iraqi tent camp just over the border. Iraq says the men are Kuwaitis or stateless Arabs who used to live here and want to return; Kuwait says they are Iraqi soldiers in civilian clothes ready to push across in a "provocation."

"At this point we are in a defensive mode," Maj. Gen. Ali al Muamin, the Kuwaiti chief of staff, told journalists visiting the border area. "We shall leave these people to be dealt with by the proper agencies such as the Red Cross, the United Nations and the police.

"But some of them are in very good physical shape. They do not look like civilians to me."

Muamin added: "We are ready for any invasion. I am very proud of my men. They now have the experience from the liberation of Kuwait (in the Gulf War). We are not going to run away from the Iraqis this time."

Although Kuwaitis have remained calm, many have begun to take precautions, withdrawing cash from local banks, stocking up on food, water and other provisions, filling their cars with gasoline in case they need to make a quick getaway across the desert to Saudi Arabia.

The actual 130-mile-long demilitarized zone between Iraq and Kuwait was quiet Monday.

Vesselin Kostov, a spokesman for the United Nations' Iraq-Kuwait Observation Mission, said the Iraqi forces were still out of sight.

"From our position in the DMZ we could not witness the movements of the Iraqis to the south, so we could not, of course, witness any moves to the north," Kostov said when asked to confirm the Iraqi announcement of a troop pullback.

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