WASHINGTON -- Bush administration officials warned that the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein appears poised to launch a new offensive against Shiite civilians and insurgent forces in southern Iraq, and said Washington may take military steps to stop the internal repression.
Officials at the State and Defense departments yesterday reported a steep rise in Iraqi air activity in the south and a steady increase in the concentration of tanks, troops and weapons near population centers.
"They could potentially start in the next few days," said a senior Bush administration official. "They have the capability to start a major portion at any time now. They've got all the assets in place."
Any U.S. military action would come under authority of United Nations Security Council Resolution 687, which permits members of the allied coalition that launched Operation Desert Storm in 1991 to enforce the cease-fire accords signed with Iraq. U.N. Resolution 688 prohibits Iraq from engaging in "repression" of its civilian population.
Baghdad's moves in the south -- and the Bush administration's escalating rhetoric against the Baghdad regime -- come against the backdrop of persistent Iraqi harassment of international efforts to aid Iraq's Kurds in the north. Before the United Nations' Security Council earlier this week, a Dutch diplomat detailed Baghdad's "cruel treatment" of the Kurds in the north and revealed that in the south, Iraqi commanders have been ordered destroy Shiite villages and kill their occupants.