Washington brushes aside Iraqi overture

Crisis in the Gulf
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The Independent Online
As the US massed more aerial and naval firepower in the Gulf, the Defense Secretary, William Perry, was expected to leave last night to drum up support in the region for an American strike against Iraq that could come early next week, despite signs of a more conciliatory line from Baghdad.

The trip, scheduled to take Mr Perry to Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain, took shape at a meeting of senior administration policymakers at the White House.

Almost simultaneously, eight F-117A stealth bombers arrived in Kuwait after a 20-hour flight from their base in New Mexico, and an additional 18 F-16 fighters were on their way from Georgia. The aircraft-carrier Enterprise is sailing from the Adriatic to join the carrier Carl Vinson in the Gulf, while two extra Patriot anti-missile batteries are being brought in to protect US bases from Iraqi Scud missile attacks.

Last night the show of strength and ever-growing likelihood of a large- scale US reprisal drew what could be a first conciliatory gesture from President Saddam Hussein, as Iraqi radio said it was "suspending retaliation" against US planes patrolling the "no-fly" zones in the country, from midnight last night. It was successive, albeit unsuccessful, missile launches against US warplanes this week that provoked the present build-up.

Washington expressed "encouragement" at the move but remained sceptical. "Saddam may want to talk to us but what is there to talk about? He knows what he has to do," Nicholas Burns, the State Department spokesman, said in response to Baghdad's move. "I can't imagine he will say anything that convinces us he isn't bent on aggression."

Mr Burns declined to give details of the White House strategy session, involving the Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, Mr Perry and Anthony Lake, President Bill Clinton's National Security Adviser. Mr Clinton, though back from a campaign trip to California, did not take part in the discussions, officials said.

At this stage, with a big strike at the weekend or early next week virtually a foregone conclusion, Mr Clinton is less concerned with the niceties of a military attack than building support for the operation. At home that backing seems assured, with a CNN poll yesterday indicating that the public approve his handling of the crisis by 57 per cent to 22 per cent. The main complaint here, among Republicans and Democrats alike, is that Washington did not hit President Saddam harder and sooner.

Among the Allies, however, it is a different story. Only Britain has given forthright support, and Mr Clinton yesterday was still trying to rally support. "He wants to build a consensus; that's important," one White House official said, indicating the President was ready to delay an attack briefly to strengthen its political and diplomatic underpinning.

But Washington has made clear it will go it alone if required, confident that several Arab countries, not least those to be visited by Mr Perry, while publicly critical of the US, would secretly be only too happy with strikes that reduced President Saddam's military capabilities. Officials here discount as belligerent bombast the assertions of Tariq Aziz, Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister, that the American response was "an aggression against us that leaves Iraq no choice but to resist".

At home, Republican criticism has for the time being abated. Colin Powell, who was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Gulf war, blamed Mr Clinton for allowing the 1991 anti-Saddam coalition to weaken. But, he said, it was still strong enough to prevent Iraq from threatening its neighbours.