WASHINGTON -- The United States ordered 4,000 combat troops and two anti-missile batteries to the Persian Gulf yesterday in response to thousands of elite Iraqi soldiers massed on the Kuwaiti border, threatening the oil-rich emirate.
The Pentagon reported that Iraq had moved 14,000 Republican Guard troops, its best-equipped and best-led forces, to within 12 miles of the Kuwaiti border, bringing the total number of Iraqi troops deployed there to as many as 54,000.
Other Republican Guard units were no more than a day or two away from the border.
Officials detected no signs that the Iraqis actually were preparing to invade, but they said that U.S. forces would have little warning time if they did.
"This is similar to previous deployment patterns that we saw when they did go into Kuwait," said Lt. Gen. John Sheehan, director of operations for the Pentagon's Joint Staff.
"I can't speak to what their intent is, but clearly they have the capability of attack," he said.
Each of the Republican Guard divisions has hundreds of tanks and pieces of heavy artillery.
Maj. Gen. Pat Hughes, director of intelligence for the Joint Staff, said that there were "broad indications" that additional forces elsewhere in Iraq were moving to support the troops already on the border.
A day after dispatching the aircraft carrier USS George Washington and ships carrying 2,000 Marines to the region, the United States ordered 4,000 soldiers of the 24th Mechanized Division at Fort Stewart, Ga., to head for Kuwait.
The United States also arranged to move two more Patriot missile batteries to the region and raised the alert status of ships moving into the area and combat aircraft out of Europe.
Officials would not say when the troops actually would arrive in Kuwait.
The Marines are being kept offshore near Kuwait City.
Other U.S. units, including a Marine expeditionary unit at Camp Pendleton, Calif., a wing of Air Force combat aircraft, and the remainder of the 24th division, were placed on alert to be ready for rapid deployment to the Persian Gulf, General Sheehan said.
All told, the United States expects to have 200 aircraft capable of defending Kuwait and 200 cruise missiles capable of reaching downtown Baghdad.
It has also increased intelligence surveillance of Iraqi actions.
"We are clearly in a position now that if Saddam Hussein does something, we can punish those forces," General Sheehan said.
President Clinton said yesterday, "I want to make clear one more time: It would be a grave error for Iraq to repeat the mistakes of the past, or to misjudge either American will or American power."
The United Nations Security Council, which had, up until recently, shown a deep split on how to deal with Iraq, once again coalesced in a tough statement of "grave concern" at the Iraqi troop deployments. U.S. officials, showing five satellite photos, told the council that in a few days, Iraq might have 60,000 troops along the border.
"Units that are already in position are too close for comfort," Defense Secretary William J. Perry told reporters during a trip to Haiti yesterday. "These are mechanized units, and so they are less than an hour into Kuwait.
"It seems to me unacceptable that the Iraqi government has not learned a lesson from its last misadventure in Kuwait," Mr. Perry added. "We have to look at the facts on the ground. We cannot afford to assume this is just a bluff. That is why we are taking the actions we are taking."
If Mr. Hussein orders his troops to attack Kuwait, said Mr. Perry, "we will be there to meet him."
Iraq periodically rotates its estimated 40,000 troops stationed in the southern region of the country next to Kuwait.
The latest movement raised alarms when the arriving troops began reinforcing, not replacing units already in place.
The Republican Guard units massing at the border are reportedly the elite Hammurabi and Nida divisions.
During the Persian Gulf war, they were in the interior and escaped the type of heavy casualties inflicted on front-line Iraqi soldiers.
Leaving for a Middle East trip, Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher said he would be stopping in Kuwait to "provide a very strong expression of our resolve to stand with Kuwait in this uncertain situation."
"Current Iraqi troop movements and recent statements by Iraq's Revolutionary Command Council must not be allowed to intimidate either Iraq's neighbors or the United Nations Security Council," Mr. Christopher said in a statement.
The Security Council also called for extra vigilance by the 1,140 U.N. observers patrolling the demilitarized zone along the border and asked them to report immediately any violations of the zone. It warned Iraq against any temptation to stop cooperating with a U.N. special mission monitoring Baghdad's arms program.
Baghdad has threatened to end cooperation if the mission, in a scheduled report to the United Nations tomorrow, does not give a date for easing the international trade embargo that has crippled Iraq's economy. The sanctions were imposed just days after Iraq invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990.
The chief of U.N. weapons programs in Iraq, Rolf Ekeus, has decided on an open-ended operation to monitor Iraqi compliance on ending all programs for weapons of mass destruction. Iraqis had hoped for a fixed monitoring period, after which the sanctions could be eased.
Mr. Ekeus' decision, strongly backed by the United States and Britain, is believed by U.S. officials to be a key reason for Mr. Hussein's renewed threat to Kuwait.
Many Middle East and Western analysts believe that Mr. Hussein is only trying to signal a willingness to take extreme measures if the United Nations does not lift the trade embargo.
But if mere saber-rattling is Iraq's purpose, it has backfired. The Iraqis have simply "shot themselves in the foot," a U.N. diplomat said. Now, Mr. Hussein has handed the U.N. Security Council even more reason to maintain the embargo, the analysts say.
"Iraq's recent actions underscore the importance of maintaining U.N. sanctions as we in the Security Council continue to assess Iraqi intentions," Mr. Christopher said.
"The United States remains fully committed to ensuring that Iraq complies fully with all United Nations Security Council resolutions."
The presence of international arms inspectors in Baghdad to dismantle Mr. Hussein's weapons of mass destruction and to monitor Iraq's weapons programs represents one precondition to lifting the U.N. embargo.
However, Mr. Hussein remains intransigent on other U.N. demands, including payment of war reparations, recognizing Kuwait's sovereignty and halting persecution of his own people.
The embargo has frozen the Iraqi government's overseas assets and prevented Baghdad from selling oil, the lifeline of its economy. It has sent Iraq's annual inflation rate soaring upward of 1,000 percent, deprived industry of crucial parts and subjected the average Iraqi household to severe shortages of almost every basic necessity.
Food and medicine are exempted from the embargo. But Iraqi Trade Minister Mohammad Mehdi Saleh claimed yesterday that more than 1 million Iraqis had died because of lack of food and medicine since the sanctions began.
The Security Council has offered to let Iraq sell a limited amount of oil to buy food and relief supplies but insisted on controlling its distribution. Iraq has rejected the deal as an infringement on its sovereignty.