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United States Sends Carrier to Strengthen Gulf Forces

By Thomas W. Lippman
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

The United States is sending 2,200 Marines on warships to the Persian Gulf to defend U.S. forces and help evacuate civilians in the region in the event of armed conflict with Iraq, military officials said Thursday.

But even as the U.S. military buildup continued with the dispatch of the Marines and the arrival in the gulf of a third aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Independence, President Clinton said several times Thursday that he would prefer a peaceful resolution of the standoff with Iraq.

As diplomatic efforts continued in Baghdad, there were a few faint hints that a diplomatic solution might still be possible. "One can say that there are the first signs of movement," French foreign minister Hubert Vedrine, said in a television interview Thursday. He said the Iraqis told a French envoy in Baghdad that eight so-called presidential sites that Iraq has put off limits to U.N. weapons inspectors "could be either inspected or visited - there is a discussion on the terms and on the practical consequences."

France, Turkey, the Arab League and Russia, which oppose the use of force against Iraq, have all sent representatives to Baghdad this week to press Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to allow the weapons inspection teams to resume their work unhindered, as the U.N. Security Council and the United States insist.

These talks are not negotiations and the foreign envoys are not speaking for the United States, state department spokesman James P. Rubin said. He said reports of an Iraqi offer on inspections might indicate some movement, although similar reports have not come close to satisfying American demands.

"Number one, the diplomatic string is fraying," he said. "Number two, the latest proposals fall short. Number three, they could signal, however, Iraq's recognition that its position is untenable. If they do and (Saddam allows) full and unfettered access, then the diplomatic string will firm up."

Asked if the U.S. military deployments in the area mean armed action is inevitable, Clinton said, "No, no. that's up to Saddam Hussein. I do not want a conflict I want a diplomatic resolution of this." If the diplomacy results in access to suspect sites by the international inspectors, Clinton said, and "if that assurance can be given in reasonable form that anyone with sound judgment would accept, then nothing is inevitable here."

Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the only major foreign leader to give unconditional endorsement to U.S. plans to strike Iraq militarily if necessary, stressed to reporters that Saddam is not to be trusted and his past behavior gives little reason to believe he will yield.

"Everyone hopes a diplomatic solution is available and can work," Blair said. "We all want that. But I think all of our experience of Saddam Hussein teaches us that diplomacy has very little chance of working unless it is clear to him that if diplomacy does not work, then the threat and the reality of force is there."

If force is used, Clinton said, its purpose will not be to eliminate Saddam, as some members of Congress and some independent analysts have urged. He said such an aim would go beyond a United Nations mandate to enforce sanctions, and he would not deviate from an executive order issued in the 1970s by President Gerald Ford banning assassination of foreign leaders.

It appeared Thursday that the diplomats pressing their case with Iraq have at least several days, and possibly a few weeks, to deliver results Washington and London consider credible.

Defense Secretary William Cohen left Thursday night for a security conference in Germany that he will follow with visits to Saudi Arabia and other gulf states for talks about possible military action. The movement of the Marine contingent from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf would take at least 10 days, defense officials said.

A senior general at the Pentagon said Gen. Anthony Zinni, commander of U.S. forces in the gulf, had requested the Marines as a precaution in the event Saddam launches a counter-attack in response to U.S. air strikes. Their presence will bring the total number of U.S. troops in the region to more than 30,000.

"That response could take numerous twists," the general said. "One of them might be to literally try to move troops south again" into Kuwait or Saudi Arabia.

"Or another might be to try to put some of the cities in the region in harm's way using some kind of missiles.