Iraq: Air-strike force remains on alert

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"I AM not going to let my folks change their commitment until Saddam Hussein complies with the written words of the agreement he has made," said Colonel Kevin Smith, commander of the US Air Force's 49th Operations Group, which includes all the 12 Stealth fighters in Kuwait. "We can't afford to relax our commitment. The people here hope we don't have to maintain this military build-up indefinitely, but they're also realistic. He hasn't followed through yet."

Behind him crouched one of his Stealths. "This is a national treasure," said Colonel Smith. "We won't sell it to anybody. This is the one we trust to go against the heaviest defences, last time it attacked all the important targets around Baghdad." That was during the Gulf war in 1991, which drove President Saddam out of Kuwait but left him in power in Iraq, still trying to develop weapons of mass destruction and conceal them from United Nations inspectors.

For the moment, following the agreement signed in Baghdad on Monday, it seems that force will not have to be used again. The military build- up in the Gulf is continuing, however: extra American troops, now expected to number 10,000 rather than the 6,000 previously announced, continue to arrive in Kuwait, and the destroyer HMS Nottingham, part of the Royal Navy contingent at sea, docked here yesterday to take part in celebrations of the seventh anniversary of the liberation of the country tomorrow.

At Ahmed al-Jaber air base, the apron is crammed with US and Kuwaiti aircraft - Stealths, F-18 fighters with their distinctive V-shaped tails, F-16 fighter-bombers and A-10 "Warthog" tank-busters, which wrought havoc on Iraqi armour in 1991. There is no room for any more, and equipment and supplies have to be unloaded on a taxiway. Lieutenant-Colonel Dick Rayburn, 49, a Vietnam veteran, has been in Kuwait two weeks and has already been over Iraq five times in his F-16, enforcing the southern "no-fly" zone. "I don't know how long we'll be doing this, but I expect it'll be a while," he said.

Much the same comment comes at a more senior level when it is asked how long the augmented American and British forces will remain in the Gulf. "The importance of the military build-up doesn't stop because of a news report," said a US military spokesman. Off the record, however, it is intimated that the commitment could remain close to its present level for several months. Although Kuwait is paying the running expenses of the forces on its soil, the extra cost to the US taxpayer is estimated at around $200m a month, and it will be important to maintain public support at home as the immediate crisis fades.

"The best way to use force is to show it without having to use it," Kofi Annan said on his return to the UN yesterday, and Colonel Robert Awtrey, the most senior USAF officer in Kuwait, was keen to do just that. "I want to show you the combat capability we have here," he said. "While we are happy a diplomatic solution may be in the works, obviously we are all concerned to make sure it's a long-term solution."

Back at the apron, Major Reid Christopherson was showing off the destructive power of the A-10, which can fire 60 foot-long shells a second. "Everyone's very relieved that it's being resolved diplomatically, because we'd rather be deployed as a peaceful deterrent than fight. Certainly, though, this gives the appearance of being a long-term commitment."