The United States is engaging in gunboat diplomacy to discourage any notions Saddam Hussein might be entertaining of attacking Jordan in retaliation for King Hussein's decision to give sanctuary to two high-level Iraqi defectors.
William Perry, the Secretary of Defense, said an American aircraft-carrier, the Theodore Roosevelt, had docked in the Israeli port of Haifa, putting its planes within striking distance of Iraq, and that the US was prepared to launch a Tomahawk cruise-missile strike in the event of Iraqi aggression against Jordan. "We have a sizeable number of Tomahawks within range of Iraq," Mr Perry said in an interview published in yesterday's Washington Times.
"All in all, we have a powerful military force which we could bring to bear on that situation immediately if we needed to."
Israeli press reports yesterday said that the Rabin government had given its blessing to a US request to fly the warplanes on the Roosevelt over Israel in case it became necessary to launch a strike against Iraq.
In a further measure of American military preparedness, and of President Bill Clinton's capacity to make good a promise last week to support King Hussein's decision to harbour the Iraqi defectors, US troops arrived yesterday in the Jordanian port of Aqaba for amphibious exercises with the Jordanian military.
Operation Infinite Moonlight 95, will involve a helicopter-carrier and 2,000 US Marines, and will continue until 30 August. They were planned before the defections, but were brought forward to make a salutary impression on President Saddam.
Just in case the Iraqi leader failed to get the message, US officials made it known yesterday that another aircraft-carrier, the Lincoln, was in the Gulf at the head of a flotilla of 18 US warships. As if that were not enough to concentrate President Saddam's mind, Mr Perry said he had talked to the commander of US forces in the region, General Binford Peay, who had assured him that 200 US aircraft deployed in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia were "adequate" to aid Jordan.
The question remained however whether this extravagant muscle-flexing - described by an Iraqi government official yesterday as "the barking of dogs" - was warranted. State Department officials said on Monday that they were not aware of any unusual signs of military activity in Iraq. Mr Perry conceded in his interview that while the US understood that Iraqi military forces were on the move, no evidence existed that they planned to attack Jordan.
"We see some redeployment of forces, but the pattern does not necessarily suggest an attack," said Mr Perry, adding that additional "intelligence resources" had been deployed to watch the situation in Iraq "very, very closely".
The dangers to Jordan were real, he insisted, and gave "every reason" for concern, not least because, in Mr Perry's view, the defection of Lieutenant- General Hussein Kamel Hussan and his brother, Lt-Colonel Saddam Kamel Hassan, offered "a very clear indication of how shaky, how unstable the regime in Iraq is". He added: "There's evidently a sizeable purge going on in the Iraqi government, particularly in the Iraqi military today. That can only lead to more instability, more weakness in the Iraqi government."
The view from Baghdad, as expressed by Lt-General Abdul Jawad Dhanoun, the deputy head of the presidential office, was that the defections had rid Iraq of a "cancerous tumour". Suggesting some anxiety that the tumour might reappear, however, Gen Dhanoun added that Gen Hussein Kamel had "condemned himself to death".