WASHINGTON -- The car bomb found by the Kuwaiti authorities in a suspected assassination plot against former President George Bush bears a striking resemblance to the sophisticated explosive devices used by Iraqi agents in attempted terrorist attacks during the Persian Gulf War, according to American officials.
They said yesterday an examination of the weapon by federal investigators and American intelligence experts has found its detonating mechanism and other crucial components to be almost exactly the same as those in weapons assembled by the Iraqis in several earlier thwarted attempts.
That distinctive signature represents the most powerful evidence yet pointing to Iraqi government sponsorship of the plot, the officials said. But they said American investigators intended to interview at least some of the 16 suspects in the case who are now in Kuwaiti custody before making any judgment about Iraqi responsibility.
The implications of that review assumed new seriousness yesterday as Kuwait declared its intent to put the suspects on trial rather than permit them to be extradited to the United States.
That decision removes an option that had been under early consideration by President Clinton, officials said, and could increase pressure on the White House to consider direct retribution against Iraq if its government is found to have directed an assassination effort.
Clinton administration officials said it would be at least several days before such a determination could be made. But congressional leaders from both parties urged yesterday that the United States respond quickly and with military force if Iraqi sponsorship could be proven.
Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said yesterday that in such a case he would favor "sure and swift" American military retaliation against Iraqi terrorist bases.
And Sen. Dennis DeConcini, D-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said yesterday, "If there is real credible information, the United States should in my view take unilateral action -- a bombing or other air strike."