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10,000 Iraqis Stop Pulling Back from Kuwaiti Border

By Thomas W. Lippman and Bradley Graham
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

The U.S. government reported late Thursday that as many as 10,000 of the troops Iraq was pulling back from the Kuwait border area had stopped their retreat and appeared to be digging in at new positions much closer to Kuwait than Washington has said it would allow.

It was not clear why the troops had stopped, but the unexpected development generated fresh concern among U.S. officials about Iraqi intentions and prompted the Pentagon to consider accelerating the dispatch of U.S. forces to the Persian Gulf region. Earlier in the day, believing Iraq's withdrawal was going well, U.S. military commanders had put a hold on the planned deployment of some forces.

At the same time, the United States appeared to be heading for a tough diplomatic argument with Russia over what to do next to prevent Iraq from again taking threatening military action.

Thursday night, Iraq announced in a joint declaration with Russia that it was ready to recognize Kuwait's sovereignty and borders with the understanding that the United Nations embargo against it would be eased. Russia declared that, once Baghdad recognizes Kuwait, it will support lifting the embargo on Iraqi oil sales after a six-month testing period of U.N. monitoring of Iraq's arms industry.

The immediate U.S. response to the Iraqi-Russian statement was negative, as senior officials said they were not interested in easing economic sanctions on Iraq in exchange for any conditional or partial compliance with U.N. Security resolutions.

The Russian and Iraqi commitments came in a joint statement read over Iraqi television following a meeting between Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and Russian Foreign Minister Andrej Kozyrev, who arrived in Baghdad Thursday in a bid to defuse the latest confrontation between Iraq and the United States.

U.S. officials said a large part of one of two divisions of the Iraqi Republican Guard that had been withdrawing from the border with Kuwait had halted at the town of Nasariyah, about 100 miles from the border. Another contingent stopped a little further north in the town of Qualat Salih, officials said.

The officials said the new locations left Iraq's best-equipped troops still within relatively easy striking range of Kuwait. The Clinton administration wants the Guard units to return to positions near Baghdad and Mosul in northern Iraq that they occupied before they moved south in the recent action that prompted the U.S. military response.

The United States now has about 4,400 ground troops, more than 200 aircraft and 17 ships in the region, but U.S. officials expressed concern that the Iraqi troops still could be considering a thrust toward Kuwait.

Officials with access to U.S. intelligence reports said they could only speculate on why the Iraqi troops - part of the 20,000 whom Saddam suddenly sent streaming toward Kuwait a week ago - had halted. It was not clear whether the units simply intended to pause awhile in their promised withdrawal or planned to stay where they are.

A senior defense official noted that the place the Iraqi troops have stopped could be used as a staging area for renewed attacks on Shiite Muslim dissidents who live in the marshes just to the south. Iraqi forces have been waging a repressive campaign against the Shiites there for years.

"My level of concern is high," said a senior defense official. "They're within a distance that would enable them to move rapidly toward Kuwait, just as rapidly as they left" a day or two ago.

The official said that the troops stopped at Nasariyah had "dug in" their combat equipment. He also reported "some anomalies" involving the Iraqi troops that had halted at Qualat Salih.

"It's a matter to be watched very closely," White House national security adviser Anthony Lake said of the latest Iraqi move.

Before the new alarms over the halt in Iraq's retreat from the Kuwaiti border region, the prospect of a military confrontation was receding so rapidly that Defense Secretary William J. Perry said in Saudi Arabia Thursday that he wanted the United States to begin withdrawing some of its troops in the Persian Gulf region within weeks.