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Cohen Cautious on Persian Gulf Progress

By Paul Stone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, April 6, 1998 – Service members on duty in the Persian Gulf can expect to remain there -- at least for now.

Although saying he hoped to reduce the size of the 30,000-member force soon, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen said progress of the U.N. inspection process ultimately will determine the timetable. In the meantime, he said, forces in the Gulf are "doing an outstanding job" and "prepared to take action if that becomes necessary."

During a wide-ranging interview with the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service, Cohen said the "American people ought to be very, very proud of their (service members') dedication, patriotism and professionalism that they demonstrate day in and day out."

The secretary said Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is currently living up to his side of the agreement to allow U.N. weapons inspectors full and unfettered access to inspection sites -- for now. But as in the past, Cohen again stressed, that's not going to be enough.

"He has to come forward with positive proof that he has in fact destroyed all of those systems that he said he once had," Cohen said. He was referring to Hussein's claims he has destroyed 50 warheads filled with the deadly nerve agent sarin, 25 Scud warheads, 157 bombs filled with biological agents, 130 tons of chemical agents and more than 15,000 chemical weapons.

Cohen called this a "very major element" the Iraqis must come forward with instead of trying to put the burden on the U.N. inspectors.

In the meantime, U.S. operations in the Persian Gulf and Bosnia threaten to strain the military unless Congress approves supplemental funds to support the gulf build up.

Calling the budget squeeze a "significant problem," Cohen said unless Congress responds to a request for additional funding by May 1, DoD will have to redirect funds from other accounts, including training, readiness, and operations and maintenance. Over time, the secretary said, this could affect everything from training to procurement, as well as hiring and potential furloughs of personnel.

The House and Senate have approved separate, very different emergency military spending bills. Work on a compromise bill will wait until late April, when Congress returns from its spring recess.

Cohen said the funding is critical to both the Persian Gulf operations and the Bosnia mission, which he believes will eventually be seen as a major success story.

"We have seen many heavy armaments reduced or eliminated from that region," Cohen said. "We have seen about 300,000 active forces retired from duty there. We have seen farmers going back into the fields. We have seen houses being rebuilt. We have seen the economy starting to grow at really unprecedented rates compared to any party of the world in terms of their economic growth in the past two years."

While President Clinton has agreed not to set a new date for complete withdrawal from Bosnia, Cohen said, this does not mean troop strength there will remain at current levels.

"The forces are coming down and the mission is not being expanded," the secretary said. "We are, in fact, making good progress as far as persuading our European friends that we should have a specialized police unit that will serve as a buffer between the local police ... and the follow-on forces that come after SFOR so we don't have our armed forces conducting what are essentially police missions."

Cohen said the mission will now receive regular reviews to determine how and the number of troops which can be withdrawn at any given time.

He is equally optimistic about bringing the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland into the NATO alliance, and said it will help spread stability and democracy through Central and Eastern Europe.

"We would have strategic depth that would be obtained by this process," Cohen said. "We have three countries who will professionalize their military, who will modernize their military and who will integrate that with NATO standards."

Cohen said their addition to NATO may help prevent future conflict in Europe, such as that which ultimately resulted in the Bosnia mission.

"If you look at the enemy, it's no longer a Soviet empire, but rather instability," Cohen said. "It's the kind of thing we saw take place in Bosnia. ... We want to see that eliminated. We think NATO enlargement will help."

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