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Recap on Iraqi Threat, U.S. Response

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Dec. 5, 1997 – The United States beefed up its military presence in the Persian Gulf in late November in response to escalating tension between the United States and Iraq. About 29,000 U.S. troops, 22 Navy ships and 250 aircraft now stand ready in the region.

The crisis began Oct. 29 when Saddam Hussein ordered Americans members of the U.N. Special Commission weapons inspection teams out of Iraq. In protest, all U.N. inspectors left the country. For the next three weeks, Hussein escaped U.N. oversight.

Hussein also threatened to shoot down American U-2 surveillance planes flying U.N. missions. Defense Secretary William S. Cohen warned Iraq that any attack would result in prompt military action and any future U.S. strike would be more than a "pinprick." After a brief suspension, U.N. officials ordered the U-2 flights to continue. As of Dec. 3, the planes have flown without incident.

As international diplomats worked to resolve the crisis peacefully, President Clinton diverted the USS George Washington carrier battle group from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf. The group augmented the USS Nimitz carrier battle group already in the region.

"This is a crisis of Saddam's making," Clinton said. "It can be unmade only when he can no longer threaten the international community with weapons of mass destruction.

"Saddam has spent the better part of the last two decades, and much of the wealth of his nation, not on providing for the needs and advancing the hopes of the Iraqi people, but on a program to build an arsenal of the most terrible weapons of destruction nuclear, chemical, biological and on the missiles to carry them to faraway places," Clinton said.

Deploying the George Washington was a precautionary measure, Cohen said. "It will help ensure that we have adequate forces in the region to respond to any contingency as the international community works to make it clear that Iraq must adhere to the U.N. resolutions."

"Iraq is refusing to comply with the U.N. resolutions that it allow inspections of its facilities to build weapons of mass destruction, including deadly nerve gas and biological toxins," Cohen said. "Iraq's decision to bar inspectors suggests that Iraq is determined to rebuild or expand its capacity to manufacture weapons of mass destruction."

As diplomatic efforts continued, U.S. military leaders also deployed six F-117 stealth aircraft and an air expeditionary force with more than 30 aircraft, including two B-1 bombers to the region. Two B-52 bombers were sent to Diego Garcia.

Army Gen. Hugh Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called the buildup "a prudent measure to demonstrate how seriously the U.S. takes both this challenge to the authority of the U.N. and also the continued pursuit of these dangerous weapons by the Iraqi government. While we have a robust force already in the region ... it is prudent to take some additional measures in light of the rhetoric, the threats and the intransigence of the Iraqi regime."

During talks in Geneva, Iraq agreed to let the U.N. inspectors return, but Hussein placed 63 "sensitive" sites, including his 47 palaces, off limits. U.S. officials deemed the restriction unacceptable. U.N. weapons inspectors returned to Iraq Nov. 21.

On Nov. 25, the Defense Department released a report on the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Cohen announced at a Pentagon news conference that Hussein may have produced enough VX nerve agent to kill everyone on Earth.

"Originally, the Iraqis indicated they had just a small quantity of VX," Cohen said. "One drop on your finger will produce death in a matter of a few moments. Now the U.N. believes that Saddam may have produced as much as 200 tons.

When Hussein's son-in-law defected, Cohen said, he disclosed that Hussein had concealed a number of chemical and biological weapons capabilities from U.N. inspectors. DoD officials report Hussein started developing VX nerve agent in 1985 and continued without interruption until the end of 1990.

The U.N. Special Commission's job is to monitor Iraq's weapons programs. To date, its efforts have led to destruction of Iraqi missiles and weapons of mass destruction and the production facilities to make them.

"The U.N. has done an extraordinary amount of work in the last six years under very difficult circumstances," Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon said. "It has discovered and assured destruction of 53 Scud missiles. It's discovered missile gyroscopes imported after the Gulf War and either taken them out or destroyed them."

U.N. inspectors also discovered and destroyed 38,000 chemical munitions and 6,990 tons of chemical agents, Bacon said. They found and destroyed a custom-built biological weapons factory that could make botulism toxin as well as anthrax.

Along with the inspection effort on the ground, U.N. surveillance cameras monitor 63 missile sites, 160 chemical sites, 90 biological sites and a number of dual-use facilities that can make agricultural or pharmaceutical goods, Bacon said. "These facilities can also be flipped over to make weapons of mass destruction."

About 75 inspectors, including four Americans, are in Iraq checking sites near Baghdad for evidence of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. As of Dec. 3, they had not yet attempted to inspect any prohibited site.

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