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U.S., Britain Reaffirm Resolve to Oppose Iraqi Troop Buildup

By Julia Preston and Thomas W. Lippman
The Washington Post

The United States and Britain told Iraq Thursday that they will use military force to stop any new buildup of Iraqi troops south of the 32nd parallel, U.S. and British diplomats said.

In separate but nearly identical diplomatic notes, the two allies drew the geographic line to define the northern edge of a 150-mile-deep zone in southern Iraq in which they will not tolerate reinforcements, warning they will "respond appropriately and decisively" to any new influx.

U.S. officials said Ambassador K. Madeleine Albright told her Iraqi counterpart, Nizar Hamdoon, that the messages mean Iraq should expect major military action against any additional troops dispatched into the area, which lies just north of Kuwait.

In setting a geographic boundary and making explicit the threat of military action, the United States and Britain appeared to take the confrontation with Iraq significantly beyond the U.N. Security Council resolution passed Saturday in response to Iraqi troop movements in southern Iraq that appeared to threaten Kuwait. That resolution warned Iraq against any strengthening of its military might near the border but drew no geographic line and contained only a general warning of "serious consequences" if Iraqi troops were reinforced.

The vague language was a concession by the United States to France and Russia, which feared that the council might be going too far in infringing on President Saddam Hussein's ability to deploy his armed forces within his own country.

The two countries sent Thursday's message to ensure that Baghdad has "no misunderstanding" about Saturday's resolution, a U.S. official said. "We have made it clear we would not wait to use very strong military force," he added.

The two Iraqi Republican Guard divisions whose rapid movement southward sent thousands of U.S. troops scurrying to the Persian Gulf region two weeks ago are now north of Baghdad, senior Pentagon officials said. The six Iraqi army divisions remaining south of the 32nd parallel are "not currently in a threatening posture," a senior officer said at a Pentagon briefing, but Iraq remains capable of assembling a force that would be a potential danger to Kuwait "absent a credible deterrent."

With "the threat ameliorated somewhat," the Pentagon canceled further deployments of U.S. troops to the region, said Air Force Lt. Gen. Howell M. Estes III, operations director for the joint staff.

A second brigade of the 24th Mechanized Infantry division from Fort Stewart, Ga., already heading for Kuwait, will go ahead, Estes said, but additional Marine units, Air Force B-52 bomber squadrons and a second Navy aircraft carrier battle group that had been alerted to head for the Persian Gulf will not go.

Pentagon officials said the total U.S. troop commitment in or around Kuwait will level off at about 36,000, including 12,000 ground troops. Planners at the military's Central Command in Tampa, Fla., are discussing how long the troops will have to stay, Pentagon officials said.

France was conspicuously absent from Thursday's warnings. This was taken as a sign that important differences persist among the key allies from the 1991 Persian Gulf War, in which Saddam's invasion forces were routed and driven out of Kuwait.

In negotiations in recent days, U.S. and British diplomats were not able to agree with France on a common message to Baghdad. But French officials said their U.N. ambassador, Jean-Bernard Merimee, met Tuesday with Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tarik Aziz in New York to reaffirm that France supports the terms of the Security Council resolution in general.

The 32nd parallel is already the northern border of a "no-fly zone" in southern Iraq, over which the allies have banned Iraqi warplanes. The zone is jointly patrolled by the United States, Britain and France, which has 12 Mirage and Jaguar fighter jets stationed in the region for the operation. But it appeared that France will not join in patrols targeted against movements of ground troops.

The U.S. and British messages demand that Iraq immediately withdraw from the southern zone all troops that were not positioned there before Sept. 20. The United States regards the pattern of Iraqi deployments before that date as "non-hostile," a U.S. official said. About 30,000 troops in three regular divisions were based in the south before the crisis, and those can stay, U.S. officials said.

The United States also said in its message that the gulf coalition "will not remain indifferent to the use of military force to repress" Kurds in the north of the country and Shiite Muslims in the south, a U.S. official said.