WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- After detecting threatening movements by Iraqi troops against the Kurdish districts in the north, President Clinton has ordered U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf region "to be prepared to deploy" if needed, administration officials said yesterday.
The intention of the Iraqi troops and of President Saddam Hussein remained unclear, administration officials said. The officials refused to discuss the size or strength of the Iraqi forces.
But,they said, the movements toward the Kurdish zone, which is under U.N. protection, caused enough concern to warrant a heightened state of readiness.
"We would view any aggressive moves by Iraq with utmost seriousness," said Glyn Davies, a State Department spokesman. "The Iraqis are in no doubt of our views on this."
Mike McCurry, Clinton's press secretary, said: "We will consider any aggression by Iraq to be a matter of very grave concern. We will continue to monitor the situation very carefully."
McCurry said Clinton, who is campaigning in the small Illinois town of Cairo, "has ordered that steps be taken to ensure the United States is prepared for any contingency," the Associated Press reported.
The United States was clearly trying to send a strong warning to Iraq not to cross into the so-called exclusion zone, hoping to keep "these tensions from escalating," as one official put it.
The zone covers all of Iraq north of the 36th parallel. It was created by the United States and other Western countries after the Persian Gulf war in 1991 to protect the Kurds, who at the time were in the midst of learning that even a weakened Iraqi army was strong enough to smash their insurrection against Baghdad's rule.
Protected by U.S. forces under a U.N. mandate, the zone has been a repeated area of contention with Iraq. Iraqi aircraft are forbidden from the entire zone.
The United States already has considerable forces in the region, including 21 ships in the Persian Gulf and ground forces in various countries, including Saudi Arabia. In all, one official said, the United States has 23,000 military personnel in the region.
The reported Iraqi troop movements and the U.S. warning came at a time of significant tensions in the north.
Earlier this month, renewed fighting erupted between the two main rival Kurdish factions, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party.
Concerned that the fighting could draw Iraq or Iran into a confrontation, the United States brokered a cease-fire last week and brought representatives of the two sides together in London yesterday for talks aimed at a more lasting peace.
But Iraq has reacted angrily to the U.S. actions, charging that the United States was meddling in its national affairs.
As the Kurdish factions clashed, Iran also moved troops into its northern territories. Thursday, Iraq accused Iran of sending troops into Iraq itself, presumably to strike at Iranian Kurdish guerrillas there.
Administration officials said that the United States was considering precautionary steps but that so far it had ordered no new deployments.
The fleet in the Persian Gulf, part of the international naval group that enforces an embargo on Iraq, includes the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson. In the past, Air Force jets based in southern Turkey have also been used to keep Iraqi planes out of the north.
The U.S. efforts to keep peace between the rival Kurdish groups, who have struggled for control over the north, have had mixed results. The United States has had to step in several times over the last year to maintain a semblance of peace, but it has failed to secure a permanent agreement.
The latest infighting broke out in mid-August, raising considerable alarm in Washington that it would lead to exactly the sort of threatening movements by Iraq that have now evidently developed.
Pub Date: 8/31/96