US holds fire as Iraq plays safe

Crisis in the Gulf: America's build-up in Kuwait stalled as Baghdad stops short of further aggression

Facing apparent reluctance by Kuwait to accept a further 5,000 United States troops on its soil, unease among several other regional allies, and a more conciliatory stance from Saddam Hussein, the US appears to be drawing back from new large-scale retaliatory strikes against Iraq, at least for the time being.

Speaking on NBC's Meet the Press yesterday, Madeleine Albright, Washington's ambassador to the United Nations, said that despite its menacing forces build-up in the Gulf, the US would not be pressed into "overreacting" against Baghdad. Of Saddam, she said, "it looks as though he's not going anywhere".

Her remarks came as Kuwait pondered whether to agree to the dispatch of a further 5,000 US ground troops, at the very moment that William Perry, the Defense Secretary, was in the emirate, part of a tour of the region to drum up support among the former Gulf war allies for tough reprisals against Saddam.

The men had been due to leave their base at Fort Hood, Texas, on Saturday but officials said it was now unclear when - or even if - they would go

President Bill Clinton's senior advisers sought to play down Kuwait's hesitancy, saying that the delay on the part of the country which the US saved from Saddam just five years ago was part of a "normal decision- making procedure", and expressed confidence that formal permission would soon be granted.

But the episode only underlines the deep unhappiness among key US allies at the latest turn of events, and the changed political landscape of the region. Turkey has refused to allow strikes to be launched from its bases, while Mr Perry's stop in Saudi Arabia was passed over in virtual silence by the local media - reminders of how growing Islamic fundamentalism is making both countries wary of any public embrace of the US and its policies.

On the ground, too, the situation was calm at the weekend. The Iraqis fired no missiles against patrolling US aircraft and, according to the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman General John Shalikashvili, have stopped repair work on the air defence sites damaged during the initial US cruise missile strikes earlier this month. But Gen Shalikashvili warned that Washington was watching matters very closely.

Whatever the waverings of its partners, the US continues to keep up the pressure. The aircraft carrier USS Enterprise is now in the region. Some reports also say Washington has warned Baghdad to remove its air defence systems from the southern no-fly zone or face fresh attack. Questioned on the issue, Warren Christopher, the US Secretary of State, declined to comment yesterday.

t Bahrain yesterday said it had agreed to host 23 F-16 US warplanes. The announcement followed talks between Mr Perry and Bahrain's Emir Sheikh Isa bin Sulman al-Khalifa and other ministers in Manama. "We will do what is necessary to protect our mutual security in this region and Bahrain and the United States stand shoulder to shoulder," Mr Perry said.

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