US lines up firepower to strike at defiant Iraq

Gulf reprisal: Stealth bombers leave for Kuwait as Saddam continues sabre-rattling tactics and Clinton battles on home front
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The Independent Online
A fresh US strike against President Saddam Hussein of Iraq became inevitable yesterday as F-117 stealth bombers left for Kuwait and the Pentagon announced redeployment of the aircraft-carrier Enterprise from the Adriatic into the Red Sea.

Baghdad claimed to have fired three more missiles against US warplanes enforcing the "no-fly" zones in southern and northern Iraq. The Pentagon said it had no knowledge of any such attacks. But deeds and the rhetoric from Washington and Baghdad leave scant doubt that it is merely a question of whenthe US launches its reprisal.

William Perry, the Defense Secretary, dismissed as "foolish" and "totally unacceptable" Iraq's claim that Kuwait had committed an act of war by permitting the eight F-117s to operate from its territory. The US, he added, would take "all necessary and appropriate actions" to contain Iraq.

The Kuwaiti Information Minister, Sheikh Saud Nasser al-Saud al-Sabah, said his country "rejects this [Iraqi] threat and relies on international law ... and relies on Security Council resolutions that guarantee the ... sovereignty of Kuwait and all its territory."

Iraqi officials denounced the US actions as "state terrorism" which would only isolate Washington in the world community. "The aggressive Americans and their allies who have pursued the path of evil will not reap but further humiliation and disappointment."

Mr Perry's remarks followed his warning on Wednesday that the response to President Saddam's latest "provocations" would be "disproportionate", implying that retaliation would not be confined to the air-defence installations in the south, which President Saddam is said to be rebuilding after last week's two rounds of cruise-missile attacks.

Speaking shortly afterwards during a campaign swing through Arizona, President Bill Clinton emphasised that talk of war "should not spiral out of hand". Even so, most students of US policy towards Iraq believe that he has no choice but to respond and should do so vigorously.

Among possible targets listed by a Gulf-region specialist, Anthony Cordesman, in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday, were command bunkers, the Iraqi air force on the ground, or suspected sites of nuclear, biological or chemical weapons programmes.

The Republican Senator Richard Lugar, one of the most respected Congressional voices on foreign affairs, said: "I would not put Baghdad off-limits."

For campaign reasons too, Mr Clinton is under pressure to strike back hard. Republicans, and in private Democrats, have criticised as over- optimistic his earlier assertion that the two waves of 44 cruise missiles had succeeded in suppressing President Saddam.

Hesitation now would be seized upon by his opponents as sign of damage to US foreign-policy credibility and proof of Mr Clinton's ill-suitedness to be Commander-in-Chief.

Paris - The PUK Kurdish faction recently defeated by Baghdad-backed rivals said its forces came under attack from its foes and Iraqi artillery yesterday as they tried to regroup, Reuter reports.

The PUK guerrillas were defeated in a 10-day drive through northern Iraq by the Baghdad-backed KDP, which led to the initial US intervention.