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Cohen Announces Gulf Pullback, Latin American

By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service

SANTIAGO, Chile, May 28, 1998 – The United States has begun pulling back ships, aircraft and troops in the Persian Gulf, Defense Secretary William Cohen told reporters while en route here May 24.

He announced the departure of the aircraft carrier USS Independence and said other reductions would likely include removing B-52s from Diego Garcia, possibly removing F-117 stealth fighters from Kuwait, and reducing overall troop levels in the region from 37,000 to between 17,000 and 20,000.

"This [is] consistent, I believe, with some readjustment of the size of our forces in the region, which we would like to get back to pre-crisis levels," Cohen said. "Hopefully, we can do this in the next several weeks."

The United States began strengthening its presence in the gulf in late September 1997, when Saddam Hussein expelled U.N. inspectors from Iraq, threatening renewed hostilities. By late January, three carrier battle groups were positioned in the Persian Gulf, while the Air Force based B-52 bombers in the Indian Ocean and F-117 stealth bombers in Kuwait.

Cohen said Hussein should not take comfort from the planned reductions.

"We can put our multinational forces in very, very quickly to respond to any crisis," he said. With pre-positioning of troops and equipment, he said, the United States and its allies could rebuild to current levels within 48 hours.

Reducing the U.S. military presence in the gulf by about half will significantly ease the services' operations tempo, Cohen said. He also said he expects to be able to reduce the naval presence to just one carrier group. With the departure of the Independence, the USS Stennis is the only carrier battle group in the Persian Gulf.

Secretary Cohen's three-nation visit to Latin America, was his first trip ever to the region.

After meeting with Argentine leaders May 23-24, he met with the Chilean president and minister of defense May 25.

One topic expected to arise was the sale of U.S. arms to Chile. "I have spoken to the Chileans in the past about my belief that U.S. equipment, obviously, is superior," he said. "They are well aware of what we have to offer in terms of aircraft, technology and personnel."

He said the Chilean air force, in particular, is interested in modernizing, but there are many competitors vying to sell them aircraft. Chilean purchases of American-built weapons "would help solidify our long-term relations with Chile as we continue exchange programs with our military-to-military contacts," Cohen said.

Cohen said he primarily wants to strengthen relations between Chile and the United States that were bolstered by President Clinton's visit here in April.

"We are concerned about the region [and] we want to express our gratitude for their support and efforts" in the Persian Gulf and Bosnia, where Chilean military detachments have deployed, he said. The secretary lauded Chile's strong democracy and said the United States is satisfied with current civilian controls of the Chilean military.

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageChilean Defense Minister Raul Troncosco Castillo and U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen hold a joint press conference following their meeting in Santiago, Chile, May 25. Douglas J. Gillert  
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