WASHINGTON -- The United States, responding to a threatening buildup of Iraqi troops near Kuwait, sent an aircraft carrier and heavy military equipment to the Persian Gulf region yesterday and alerted thousands of Army troops and Marines that they could be dispatched as well.
U.S. officials said that Iraq had bolstered its regular forces near the border with about 10,000 well-trained and well-equipped troops of its elite Republican Guard. Part of one guard division already had reached Basra; parts of a second division could reach the border in three or four days.
These movements, raising the number of Iraqi troops near the border to between 40,000 and 50,000, coincided with Iraqi threats of retaliation if the United Nations refused to ease the embargo imposed after Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait in August 1990.
That invasion was reversed by the 1991 Persian Gulf war.
President Clinton, who already has nearly 20,000 U.S. soldiers in Haiti, warned at a news conference: "Iraq should not be able to intimidate the United Nations Security Council and the U.N. mission there. They should not be misled into thinking that they can repeat the mistakes of the past.
"It would be a grave mistake of Saddam Hussein to believe that the United States would weaken its resolve," Mr. Clinton said. But he also cautioned, "I don't want to read more into [Iraq's actions] than has actually happened."
An Iraqi spokesman accused unnamed powers of "sick and illegitimate conclusions" and "fabrications," but said, "No one has the right to talk about movement of the Iraqi army and its presence within national territory."
Clinton administration officials say they will step up surveillance of the Iraqi movements to gauge Baghdad's intentions more clearly, but want to be ready to respond to any potential threat.
The U.N. Security Council plans to meet today to discuss the Iraqi threats. U.S. ambassador Madeleine Albright said, "Let it be absolutely clear to the Iraqi government that a repetition of its past mistakes will be met by my government with the same resolve as before."
The Associated Press reported that the U.N. Security Council president, British Ambassador David Hannay, later summoned Iraqi Ambassador Nizar Hamdoon to warn Baghdad against provocative troop movements that could threaten Kuwait and regional security.
The United States already has more than 12,000 troops and 11 ships in the Persian Gulf region, in addition to aircraft based in Saudi Arabia and Turkey. But it moved yesterday to bolster these forces. It also advanced the timing of a joint military exercise with Kuwait originally scheduled for the end of the month.
At a meeting yesterday, Mr. Clinton and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. John Shalikashvili, decided to order the carrier George Washington, with F-18 and F-14 fighters and A-6 attack bombers, to move out of the Adriatic Sea toward the Red Sea.
It is accompanied by the Aegis cruiser San Jacinto, which is capable of firing 122 Tomahawk cruise missiles, and the highly sophisticated Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, the Berry.
The San Jacinto was the first ship ever to fire a Tomahawk cruise missile in action, at the start of the gulf war in 1991.
A Los Angeles-class nuclear submarine, also capable of firing cruise missiles, is in the eastern Mediterranean.
Already in the gulf were another Aegis cruiser, the Leyte Gulf, likewise able to fire 122 cruise missiles, and the Spruance-class destroyer Hewitt, usually armed with 72 cruise missiles.
A 2,000-person Marine Expeditionary Unit was in the gulf aboard the helicopter-carrier Tripoli and three amphibious ships: Cleveland, Fort McHenry and Rushmore.
Saudis pledge cooperation
Air Force fighter planes are stationed in Saudi Arabia to enforce the "no-fly" zone over southern Iraq. The Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, said after meeting with Mr. Clinton yesterday that U.S. planes would be allowed to use the kingdom's airfields in response to a new Iraqi threat.
"Aggression must be deterred, and everybody must cooperate, and if this requires cooperation between our two countries, this would be forthcoming immediately," he told reporters.
Britain, a strong U.S. ally in containing Iraqi threats, has sent a frigate that will reach the Persian Gulf tomorrow.
The Kuwaiti Cabinet went into emergency session, and the Defense Ministry said it was calling up some reservists. They had to report for duty by 8 a.m. tomorrow.
A senior U.S. defense official told reporters that the number of U.S.-based troops put on alert numbered less than 15,000.
Besides the carrier and the ships carrying the Marines, up to 12 fully loaded U.S. military cargo ships that are now in the Indian and Pacific oceans had been ordered to either move toward Iraq or stand by for orders.
For months, Iraq has been trying to exploit growing divisions in the Security Council in an effort to get sanctions lifted and start once again selling oil. France and Russia are particularly eager to seize on lucrative trade deals.
Iraq argues that it has complied with the cease-fire resolution that ended the Persian Gulf war and that called for all its programs for nuclear, chemical and biological weaponry to be dismantled and monitored.
But the Clinton administration has refused to even consider lifting sanctions while President Saddam Hussein remains in power.
The new round of Iraqi threats comes after a visit to Baghdad by Rolf Ekeus, the U.N. official who oversees the destruction of Iraqi weaponry and the monitoring of its weapons programs.
He refused to fix a deadline for when Iraq could be judged to have cooperated enough for sanctions to be eased.
Aziz tells of suffering
Iraq's top diplomat, Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, complained yesterday that one or two countries -- apparently referring to the United States and Britain -- had created an "iniquitous and illegitimate situation" in blocking any easing of sanctions.
As a result of the embargo, he said, Iraqis are suffering malnutrition and severe shortages of medical supplies.
He called the sanctions "a vindictive process which aims at depriving the people of Iraq, a nation of great history, which contributed immensely to human civilization, of the simplest constituents of human life."