Iraqi Troop Movements Trigger Precautionary U.S. Response
WASHINGTON (AP) _ American warplanes have stepped up flight activity in the Persian Gulf and the Pentagon was considering other precautionary moves in response to Iraqi troop movements in northern Iraq, U.S. officials said Friday.
White House press secretary Mike McCurry, traveling with President Clinton on a campaign bus tour of the Midwest, said officials were ``monitoring the situation in northern Iraq very carefully.″
``We would consider any aggressive action by Iraq a matter of very grave concern,″ McCurry said.
Pentagon spokesman Col. P.J. Crowley said Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has moved some of his forces north toward the region occupied by Kurdish separatist factions that have been fighting each other. There was no immediate indication of the size of the Iraqi force.
An Iraqi Kurd faction, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, claimed in a fax sent to The Associated Press that Iraqi infantry and armored troops were attacking Kurdish villages.
``We call on the international community ... to intervene urgently to prevent Saddam Hussein from unleashing his aggression against the people of Iraqi Kurdistan,″ the statement said.
The report could not be independently verified.
Although Saddam’s intentions were unclear, the Pentagon was considering a number of precautionary steps, Crowley and other Pentagon officials said. These steps include moving an Air Force expeditionary group of fighter aircraft into Jordan or somewhere else nearby, said officials speaking on condition of anonymity.
U.S. officials said Robert Deutsch, the State Department’s specialist on the Iraqi Kurds, is sounding out faction leaders to see whether they are willing to negotiate a permanent end to sporadic battles since Aug. 17 that interrupted a 2-year-old truce brokered by the United States.
Part of the enmity between them reflects suspicion by the Patriotic Union that the Kurdistan Democratic Party is secretly talking with Saddam and has bought weapons from him.
The U.S. Air Force already has an expeditionary group of fighter planes in Qatar, in the Persian Gulf, but they are preparing to end their deployment there, an official said.
Another official, also speaking anonymously, said the aircraft carriers USS Enterprise in the eastern Mediterranean and the USS Carl Vinson in the Persian Gulf have been put on ``short tether″ _ meaning they have been told to be prepared to move on short notice.
Aircraft on the Carl Vinson stepped up flights in the area on Friday as an initial display of U.S. concern, the official said.
``What you’ve got are some precautionary moves″ by U.S. forces, the official said, but there is no indication that an actual military operation will be necessary.
The Pentagon has long been concerned at the possibility that a military conflict in northern Iraq involving Saddam’s forces could lead to a repeat of the mass Kurdish exodus into Turkey and Iran that occurred in 1991 after the Gulf War.
U.S. Air Force planes based in southern Turkey have been used since the Gulf War to enforce a ``no fly″ zone over northern Iraq to protect the Kurds from Saddam’s forces.