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U.S. Threatens Air Strikes if Iraqis Don't Pull Back : Mideast: Elite division has not resumed its withdrawal from Kuwaiti border region. But officials concede that no military action is imminent.


DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia — The Clinton Administration threatened Friday to launch air strikes against Iraqi troops if they do not resume their withdrawal to the positions they held before advancing recently toward Kuwait, but officials conceded that no military action is imminent.

The warning was sounded by Defense Secretary William J. Perry, who said during a visit here that the United States "cannot accept" a Republican Guard division where it has stopped, 125 miles west of the border.

"We are talking about military action," he said.

President Clinton reinforced that later at a White House ceremony for exiled Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

"Let there be no mistake," he said. "The United States will not allow Iraq to threaten its neighbors."

Perry also said the United States will increase its deployment of troops and aircraft substantially if Iraq does not remove its Republican Guard divisions from the area. He set no deadline, however, for either the air strikes or the increase in U.S. troop strength.

Also Friday, the Administration rejected a Russian-brokered proposal under which Baghdad has promised to recognize Kuwait's sovereignty--abandoning its claim that Kuwait is part of Iraq--if the United Nations lifts the economic sanctions it has imposed on Iraq.

Secretary of State Warren Christopher, in Germany on his way back to the United States from a trip to the Middle East, said Iraq must first comply with the demands issued by the U.N. Security Council after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. He called the Russian proposal "dangerously misguided."

The series of developments marked almost no change from the situation that prevailed the previous day and placed the Administration in something of a quandary in its bid to intensify political and military pressure on Iraq.

Pentagon officials reported that the Republican Guard division, which halted its withdrawal abruptly Thursday well short of its home base at Mosul, had not changed position during the previous 24 hours, leaving Washington still puzzled about Iraq's intentions.

As a result, U.S. military authorities continued to delay a decision on whether to increase U.S. deployments to the region or to scale back the size and speed of the buildup.

As late as Thursday morning, the Administration had been planning to slow the flow of troops to the Persian Gulf area--and cap it at about 30,000 ground troops, instead of the 39,000 previously projected--in recognition of Iraq's rapid withdrawal from the Kuwaiti border region.

But the Pentagon was forced to put those plans on hold after intelligence reports later that day showed that the Republican Guard division suddenly--and inexplicably--had halted its retreat about one-third of the way back to Mosul.

As of late Friday, the 18,000-troop 1st Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Pendleton, which first had been targeted for imminent deployment and later told that its departure would be delayed, was in a state of limbo, Pentagon officials said.

Also held up was the bulk of the Apache attack helicopter force of 101st Air Cavalry of Ft. Campbell, Ky., as well as a spate of Air Force aircraft, including six B-52 bombers and some radar-evading F-117A Stealth fighter-bombers.

Despite Perry's warning Friday, there were no indications that U.S. troops were preparing to take immediate military action to punish the halted Iraqi forces. Pentagon officials said they wanted to watch the situation for another day or two.

However, senior Administration officials said that Clinton was prepared to order air strikes against Iraqi targets if the Republican Guard division did not resume its march to Mosul.

"The next 48 hours will be critical," one military officer said.

Pentagon officials said they are still not sure precisely why the Iraqi troops stopped their withdrawal, whether it reflected some sort of transportation-related problem or a revival of plans to launch a raid across the Kuwaiti border.

But some analysts suggested that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein may simply be trying to use the troop stoppage to taunt the United States politically, by defying U.S. demands that he withdraw his forces yet denying Washington any real reason to attack immediately.

Military experts said the reason air strikes would be used for any U.S. action is that they are simpler and less risky than other forms of retaliation--particularly since Iraq has weak air defenses. Moreover, only 5,000 U.S. ground troops are in Kuwait at the moment.

Defense analysts said the Air Force probably would dispatch A-10 Warthog warplanes carrying infrared Maverick AGM-65B tank-killing missiles to attack the tanks, fighting vehicles and artillery pieces that the Republican Guard division is carrying.

Perry's warning about increasing the size of the U.S. deployment will not be hard for the Pentagon to carry out. The Defense Department had already planned to boost U.S. strength in Kuwait to 30,000 by the end of next week, and thousands more troops are on alert.

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