With reports still confused, the Clinton administration sent B-52 bombers to the region and readied extra airpower to boost the 200 US aircraft and 23,000 American troops there. Warren Christopher, the Secretary of State, cut short a holiday to return to Washington to consult with advisers, Britain and France and other allies.
On Saturday Mr Clinton expressed "grave concern" but said it would be "premature to speculate on any response we might have". Yesterday his chief of staff, Leon Panetta, said there "would be a response with consequences for Saddam" if he did not withdraw.
What that might be is a mystery: Washington is in a quandary over how to respond to this latest challenge to its credibility in the region. Unlike five years ago, when Iraq's incursions led to the imposition of the "safe haven", the picture is muddied by factional between rival Kurdish groups linked to Iran and Iraq.
United Nations diplomats doubted that by invading the safe havens Iraq had explicitly violated individual provisions of any UN Security Council resolutions passed after the 1991 Gulf war. One said: "To be frank, this is a very grey area". Security Council resolutions confer in general terms a responsibility on Baghdad to maintain peace across Iraq and not to repress minorities. The texts provided the US and its allies with diplomatic justification for carving out safe havens within Iraq. The same resolutions are non-specific about what Baghdad may or may not do militarily in the areas. More detailed are the ceasefire agreements negotiated at the end of the war, which include provisions barring the use of Iraqi aircraft in the north but which are not covered by UN authority.
The remoteness of the region would make massive intervention on the ground difficult. If the US is forced to step in directly, most analysts suggested, it should use pinpoint air attacks against the Iraqi armoured columns which have moved across the 36th parallel.
Diplomatic retaliation is also a possibility. The offensive has already called into question the UN permission last month for Iraq to sell $2bn (pounds 1.3bn) of oil to import food and medicine for civilians. Bob Dole, the Republican candidate for the White House in November, said the latest events proved the decision to relax sanctions was "premature and ill-advised", to which Mr Clinton's spokesman, Mike McCurry, said sales were "tightly structured" to humanitarian relief.
Again therefore, Iraq haunts US politicians in an election season and with it a familiar question: should the US and its allies have finished the job in 1991 by going all the way to Baghdad?
The Kurdish foray is a reminder that despite sanctions, attempted coups, and diplomatic isolation, President Saddam is still very much around, defying prediction after prediction that his demise was imminent. He has already far outlasted his Gulf war nemesis, George Bush, and Mr Clinton has had no more success in dislodging him. Even so, barring disaster, dealing with him should work to the incumbent's advantage, given that in moments of foreign-policy tension, the country rallies behind its president. Handling the crisis endows Mr Clinton, already 15 per cent or more ahead in the polls, with an aura and authority Mr Dole cannot match.Reuse content