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US war games starting early to warn Iraq

Washington (Reuter) - The United States and Kuwait have decided to hold a scheduled military exercise in Kuwait in about 10 days' time instead of in the autumn as part of US warnings to Iraq, a senior US military official said yesterday.

The American moves were triggered by information received from two of President Saddam Hussein's sons-in-law since their defections to Jordan last week. The defectors told debriefers Iraq had contemplated an attack on Kuwait or Saudi Arabia, the officials said. Baghdad denied making threats and dismissed Western concerns as "merely a frog's croaking" and "a balloon full of lies."

"The American administration creates unfounded stories to consolidate its presence in the Gulf and to terrorise the Sabahs [the Kuwaiti rulers]," the Iraqi News Agency said.

The announcement at a Pentagon briefing amplified a notice released minutes earlier at the US Embassy in Kuwait, and underscored that the war games, to last four to six weeks, had been moved forward as part of US measures designed to discourage Iraq from menacing its neighbours. Regarding the decision on the exercises, the official said: "It was just felt this was a good time to do it."

He said this was "part of the prudent steps" Washington had announced on Thursday to discourage Iraq from making any threatening gestures toward Kuwait or Jordan.

In Kuwait, the US Embassy said the exercise would involve about 1,400 US soldiers.

Military officials at the Pentagon said they were concerned but not alarmed by Iraqi military activity, which they said did not noticeably increase after the defections last week of President Saddam's top aides.

No large military force has shown up on Kuwait's borders, one official said, adding: "The posturing of forces in the Baghdad area and south of the Baghdad area were of such a nature as to cause us concern."

He said Iraqi soldiers were moving out of their garrisons in convoy formations, which they do not usually do for training exercises. Moving in convoy formations enables them to travel greater distances in less time, thus reducing US warning-time if Iraq plans to invade Kuwait or Saudi Arabia.

The United States also said it was urging Jordan to stop accepting supplies of Iraqi oil, but would not say whether the effort had been successful.

Assistant Secretary of State Robert Pelletreau and Mark Parris, a special assistant to President Clinton, made the US case during talks in Jordan with King Hussein and other officials before going on to Egypt, the State Department said. "The objective is to insure that Iraq complies with all of the Security Council resolutions. And we're pushing in every way we can to put pressure on Iraq to do so," State Department deputy spokesman David Johnson said. Asked if this meant Washington was trying to cut off one of Iraq's oil customers, he replied: "Well, I think that would be consistent with the UN Security Council resolutions."

A sweeping trade ban slapped on Iraq after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait bars all Iraqi oil sales. But the UN has given Jordan tacit approval to continue the arrangement with Baghdad because Amman, estranged from its traditional Gulf Arab donors due to its pro-Iraqi sympathies in the Gulf war, has had no other source. As part of its strategy to further isolate Iraq, Washington has been pressing Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, either to make up for Jordan's oil needs or provide other assistance.

The two states halted aid to Jordan in retaliation for its refusal to break with Iraq during the 1991 war in what Gulf leaders saw as a personal betrayal by King Hussein. Since then, Jordan has depended completely on Iraqi oil.

The US is rallying support for Jordan among Gulf states in recognition of King Hussein's decision to grant political asylum to the two senior Iraqi defectors, who include Saddam Hussein's son-in-law Hussein Kamel Hassan Majeed, who formerly headed Iraq's advanced weapons programmes.

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