WASHINGTON — The Clinton Administration announced military measures Thursday aimed at increasing the readiness of U.S. forces and equipment available for use against Iraq, in response to what the Pentagon called "unusual movements" by Iraqi armed forces, possibly toward Kuwait.
Defense Department officials said they were moving equipment--including tanks, ammunition and supplies available for use by Marines and the U.S. Army--closer to the Persian Gulf. They said an aircraft carrier scheduled to leave the Gulf today will instead be kept there, preserving what will be--for now--a continuous American carrier presence in the Gulf.
And senior military officials said an unspecified number of "leading-edge forces" in the United States are being told they should be "ready to quickly move on reasonably short order" to respond to events in Iraq. The troops are not being put on formal alert but are being told to step up preparedness.
"These defensive measures . . . are being taken solely, I repeat, solely, in response to what we see happening in Iraq and for no other purpose," a U.S. official said in a briefing at the Pentagon. Two senior U.S. military leaders conducted the briefing on condition they would not be identified by name.
One official said the United States had detected "potentially challenging" activities by the forces of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
"This involves all of Iraq's military forces: the air arm of their military force, the air-defense arm of their military force, the regular army, and the Republican Guards and other special forces," he explained. He said the unusual activities continued Thursday.
The Pentagon would divulge few details about the Iraqi movements and would not explain what might be motivating Baghdad. The information comes from U.S. reconnaissance satellites and other intelligence sources, which they did not describe.
The official said the activities appear directed outside the country rather than against Kurdish or Shiite Muslim rebels in Iraq. The thrust of the troop movements seems aimed toward the south. They were "not necessarily immediately focused on Kuwait but focused in that direction," he said.
Clinton Administration officials seem to hope that the recent defection to Jordan of two of Hussein's top aides (both son-in-laws) and two of his daughters may be bringing political events inside Iraq to a climax, and, perhaps, lead to Hussein's downfall. But the Administration also fears that the defections might provoke the Iraqi leader into new military action against his neighbors.
"The defectors arriving in Amman, Jordan . . . had some effect in Baghdad, some effect perhaps in the stability of the government and some effect in terms of what the government may have been planning to do," said a Pentagon official.
But he and other U.S. officials said the Iraqi troop movements they considered unusual have occurred over a period of about five weeks--well before Hussein's top aides and daughters left the country. And the U.S. officials said they have no evidence of any Iraqi troop movements directed specifically against Jordan, where the defectors remain.
In Kuwait, the defense minister insisted his government had seen no signs of Iraqi military activity. "Until 20 minutes ago, there was not anything unusual in the south of Iraq," Sheik Ahmed al Hamoud al Jabbar al Sabah said in brief remarks to Reuters news service Thursday. "The usual forces which are there were already there some time ago. We have not seen anything [unusual]."
Earlier this week, Defense Secretary William J. Perry said the United States will retaliate if Iraqi forces attack Jordan.
On Thursday, the official Iraqi newspaper Al Qadissiya called Perry's statement "empty, desperate and unjustified. . . .
"Has this scoundrel forgotten Iraq's steadfastness in the eternal Mother of Battles?" it asked, referring to the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
The Pentagon earlier in the week had moved the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt into the eastern Mediterranean Sea, where it is now making a port call in Haifa, Israel.
U.S. miliary officials said some missions were flown off the carrier Wednesday in support of military operations in Jordan.
The Pentagon also announced Thursday that it was moving what it calls "prepositioned equipment" toward the Persian Gulf from places such as Diego Garcia, the American installation in the Indian Ocean, and from ships in the Indian and Pacific oceans.
The equipment being sent for the Marines can support a marine expeditionary force of about 17,000 troops. And the equipment for the Army is meant to accompany a combat brigade of up to 5,000 troops.
The Pentagon officials said that, at first, they thought the Iraqi military activities might be directed toward the Kurds in northern Iraq. These included "training activities that were unusual," he said.
"Normally, the Iraqis do not move outside their garrisons in convoy formations for military training. . . . If we see them forming up in convoys and moving out of their garrisons, we become somewhat concerned, because . . . their ability to move some distance is obviously there."
The U.S. military leader went on: "There was no massive repositioning or focusing of [Iraqi] aircraft but enough aircraft activity to cause us concern."
Elsewhere Thursday, two top U.S. officials, Assistant Secretary of State Robert Pelletreau and Special Assistant to the President Mark Parris, arrived in Amman on a special mission aimed at persuading Jordan's King Hussein to sever all economic links with Iraq.