YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Iraqi Retreat Halted; U.S. Won't Cut Force


JIDDA, Saudi Arabia — Iraqi forces abruptly halted their retreat back to Baghdad on Thursday, and U.S. officials responded immediately by suspending a plan to scale back American military deployments to the region.

The Iraqi move startled U.S. defense officials, who hours earlier had announced that the United States was slowing its flow of forces to the region and were even talking about returning troops from Kuwait to the United States "within weeks."

As night fell, it was unclear whether the pause in the Iraqi withdrawal was merely a logistic foul-up or the beginning of a serious military challenge to the United States and its allies.

In Baghdad, in Washington and at the United Nations on Thursday there were rapid-fire diplomatic developments that promised some progress toward an easing of the Persian Gulf crisis, while raising the likelihood of a substantial long-term American military presence in the area.

Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, after meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Andrei V. Kozyrev, announced on state television that he would recognize Kuwait's sovereignty and its borders. Such recognition is one of the key requirements Baghdad must meet before the United Nations will consider lifting harsh economic sanctions imposed in the aftermath of the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

However, U.S. officials all but dismissed Hussein's announcement as a propaganda ploy. "We are skeptical because of all the broken promises in the past," a U.S. diplomat said.

In Washington, a senior official said the Clinton Administration is seeking U.N. Security Council approval of a resolution to bar threatening Iraqi troop movements in the southern part of the country. The Administration will station air and possibly ground forces in the region indefinitely to enforce the prohibition, the official said.

The United States is prepared to use force "unilaterally" to prevent or punish any Iraqi moves that Washington considers hostile to Baghdad's neighbors or a threat to international peace, the official added.

And at the United Nations, U.S. Ambassador Madeleine Albright excoriated the French defense minister for accusing the United States of exaggerating the Iraqi threat for domestic political reasons, even as she sought the approval of France and other Security Council members for the Iraq resolution.

The most dramatic news of the day was the disclosure by officials in Washington and in Saudi Arabia traveling with Defense Secretary William J. Perry that the withdrawal of the Al Nida division of Iraq's elite Republican Guard had come to a halt. An estimated 10,000 troops of the armored division took up defensive positions near the city of Nasiriyah, about 120 miles northwest of the Kuwaiti border and well south of the line that U.S. officials consider the minimum safe distance from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

An official with Perry's delegation said that while Hussein may be testing U.S. intentions in deploying troops to the Middle East, the action will actually bolster American aims.

"It looks as if this may be another test of our resolve by Saddam, which I am sure we will pass with flying colors," he said.

Senior Pentagon officials, clearly concerned about the development, immediately suspended the plan to scale back U.S. deployments, saying that they want to watch the situation for at least another 24 hours before deciding how to respond.

"What I can tell you is (that) we don't like what we're seeing," said a key Pentagon official involved in the operation, who briefed reporters Thursday evening. "They are clearly south of where we would like them to be."

Pentagon officials who described the Iraqi turnabout on Thursday said that the move came as a surprise to U.S. intelligence officers, who had previously believed that the Republican Guard division in question was proceeding all the way back to its home base of Mosul in northern Iraq.

But instead, an official said, the unit abruptly halted near Nasiriyah and proceeded to dig in, at least partly, in an apparently defensive position. Some units that should have gone to other locations have not and others remain "unlocated," he said.

Early in the day, the Pentagon announced that, in view of Iraq's rapid withdrawal from the Kuwaiti border so far, it was delaying the deployment of thousands of U.S. troops and aircraft, including the 18,000-member 1st Marine Expeditionary Force from Camp Pendleton.

"I'm pleased to say that Iraq heard our message. Its forces have begun a broad retreat from the border area," President Clinton told a group of radio and television news directors in Los Angeles in a speech beamed via satellite from the White House.

Moments later, National Security Adviser Anthony Lake informed Clinton that the Iraqi retreat apparently had halted, and the President made no further comment on developments in the Middle East.

Los Angeles Times Articles