The Allied statement showed that the confrontation with Baghdad is unlikely to end even after a satisfactory redeployment of Iraqi troops north of Kuwait.
US defence officials said last night that elements of half the Iraqi military units that built up near the Kuwait border were loading on to trains and moving north. One official said the Iraqi forces appeared to be moving back to Baghdad and northern Iraq where they came from, though that was not certain.
'We feel that we're seeing elements of about half the force loading up,' he said. 'The indications are that they are going home.'
It now seems likely that Britain and the US will seek new action by the UN Security Council to curb the freedom of action enjoyed by President Saddam in deploying his troops throughout southern Iraq.
The United States was said to be considering introducing a resolution that would forbid Iraq from deploying elite units with an offensive potential in areas where they would threaten Kuwait. A US official said before a meeting of the five permanent Security Council members: 'We want to return to the status quo ante.' He disputed reports that the United States was seeking an exclusion zone in southern Iraq of all Iraqi troops and weapons, although the term in recent days has been used frequently by US officials.
Instead, the new American position backs off the concept of an exclusion zone by not forbidding all Iraqi troops or all heavy weapons. Diplomats said this was apparently in deference to earlier French objections about the phrase 'exclusion zone' that carried the suggestion of dismembering or partitioning Iraq.
By demanding the status quo ante, the US wants to make sure Iraq does not move units of Republican Guards with heavy weapons close to Kuwait. But it will not object to 30,000 troops surrounding the southern city of Basra, the official said.
Warships continued to appear off the coast of Kuwait and the Allies flew in a steady flow of reinforcements in response to the crisis. 'The crisis is not over,' said the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, in Kuwait City for a meeting with foreign ministers of Britain and the Gulf states. 'We have to make sure that the threat Saddam Hussein has mounted is removed, and then we have to see how it can be prevented in the future,' said the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, as he arrived for the meeting.
The ministers warned President Saddam that any act of aggression would bring 'horrendous consequences'.
In talks at the palace of Kuwait's Emir, the British and American representatives heard fierce arguments from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States in favour of taking the opportunity to end Iraq's potential for further military adventures.
The Saudi Foreign Minister, Saud al-Faisal, made the strongest public call for new action against Iraq, urging an 'irreversible end to the threat posed by the Iraqi regime'.
Although Iraqi planes are prohibited from flying south of the 32nd parallel and north of the 36th, there is no formal restriction on ground forces' movement in the south. This makes it difficult for the Allies to launch a pre-emptive strike against the two Republican Guard mechanised divisions, the Hammurabi and al- Nidha, whose deployment has caused such concern.
In the north, the UN has a small ground exclusion zone within the air exclusion zone. A similar arrangement was likely in the south, according to Dr John Chipman, the Director of the London-based Institute of Strategic Studies.
Dr Chipman said Saddam Hussein's strategy of 'threat and bluster' worked very well for him at home but had the opposite effect internationally. 'It may be that Saddam . . . sees it as an asset in terms of his eccentric domestic political calculations that whenever he moves a few troops he creates international panic.'