WASHINGTON -- Drawing broad authority from United Nations resolutions, the Clinton administration wants to carve a new line in the sand north of Kuwait to prevent Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from repeatedly igniting military crises by massing troops on the emirate's border.
Officials are considering a demilitarized zone to prevent Iraq from mobilizing heavily armed divisions along the border. The zone would create on the ground an area similar to the "no-fly" zones the United States set up after the Persian Gulf war to protect rebel Kurds from Mr. Hussein's army.
Although the size of the zone has not been worked out and allies have been consulted only briefly, the idea appears to have wide support with in the Clinton administration.
"It's likely to be a major element of our strategy," a State Department official said last night.
Publicly, the administration is not pushing the idea hard yet, apparently to avoid giving Iraq an excuse to halt its pullback from the Kuwaiti border. As of last night, the official said, there still was no "solid evidence of major movement" -- by tens of thousands of Iraqi troops away from the border.
To the Clinton administration, the threat to Kuwait is only the latest evidence that Saddam Hussein's regime is an incorrigible menace to the gulf region and must be hemmed in at every opportunity.
But a buffer zone will likely be seen by the isolated Iraqi leader as another big bite out of Iraqi sovereignty by the West, and could potentially cause future troubles. And policing the zone could require the permanent basing of more U.S. forces in the region.
Iraq's deployment of elite Republican Guard divisions along the border with Kuwait last week triggered a broad dispatch of troops, aircraft and equipment that could, if carried out to the fullest, cost billions of dollars, Defense Secretary William J. Perry estimates.
U.S. could face strain
If another major crisis were to erupt elsewhere in the globe at the same time, U.S. airlift capacity could be severely strained, officials fear, even though the Pentagon has designed U.S. defenses to cope with two major regional conflicts at once.
"We have to make sure that they are not the bully in the neighborhood," Madeleine Albright, the U.S. envoy to the United Nations, said in a television interview yesterday. "There's a no-fly zone now, but we are looking at ways to kind of move them back and make sure that they stay behind a certain area so that we are not faced with this kind of thing again."
Kuwait's information minister, Sheik Saud Nasser Al Sabah, said yesterday: "The most important fact we can see here is that a new line in the sand has to be drawn with regard to any existence of any Iraqi ground forces that are posing a threat to Kuwait."
Move may be allowed
As with the Clinton administration's determination not to ease the sanctions imposed on Iraq after it invaded Kuwait in 1990, some officials say that the sweeping language in existing resolutions probably would allow the creation of such a zone and that no new action by the Security Council would be required.
For instance, the U.N. cease-fire resolution that formally ended the 1991 Persian Gulf war binds the Security Council to guarantee Kuwait's border with Iraq "and to take as appropriate all necessary measures to that end in accordance with the Charter."
Iraq has refused to acknowledge the internationally recognized Kuwaiti border.
The United States, Britain and France police "no-fly zones" in northern and southern Iraq to prevent the regime from using attack helicopters against rebel Kurds and so-called Marsh Arabs. Neither zone is authorized by a separate resolution; both drew authority from a U.N. resolution requiring that Saddam Hussein's government stop repressing its population.
The United Nations has created such zones in Bosnia to prevent Serbs from firing heavy artillery at Bosnian population centers.
Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters yesterday that such a zone could probably be more easily enforced in the desert than in Bosnia's mountainous terrain.
But Michael Eisenstadt, a military analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that enforcement might require the permanent stationing of as many as 3,000 troops, as well as air power.
The Clinton administration is intent on maintaining sanctions against Iraq for as long as Mr. Hussein remains in power, although officials won't say so explicitly. They say instead that he must comply with all U.N. resolutions. They note, however, that full compliance would mean that he would have to stop repressing his citizens and thus lose his grip on power.
A grim outlook
The administration takes a much darker view of Mr. Hussein's long-term intentions than even the U.N. Special Commission that monitors the dismantling of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction does.
CIA Director R. James Woolsey, charging that Iraq still wants to become the dominant power in the region, said last month that Mr. Hussein wants to rebuild not just his armed forces but his country's dangerous-weapons capability. Iraq has 7,000 nuclear scientists and engineers, he noted, and is hiding Scuds, chemical munitions "and its entire biological warfare program."