WASHINGTON — AS the Gulf crisis nears the three month mark, the military stare-down in the Arabian Peninsula shows no signs of slackening. Iraqi forces may be running short of tires, but they're building tank roads and bunkers and digging in for a long stay, say US officials. The Pentagon, for its part, is weighing whether yet more heavy weapons are needed to bolster the firepower of US-led multinational troops.
In a flying visit to the Gulf this week, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Colin Powell, gave a sober assessment of the situation on the ground, then jetted off for quick consultations with European allies. ``I have not seen any evidence of withdrawal,'' General Powell said of Saddam Hussein.
US Defense Secretary Richard Cheney discussed the Gulf crisis with members of Congress Wednesday and said he saw no sign Iraq was preparing to pull out of Kuwait. He declined to say how many troops the United States planned to deploy there.
Mr. Cheney and Secretary of State James Baker III had a closed-door meeting with legislators to give a status report prior to Congress's expected adjournment shortly until Jan. 3.
The Pentagon says the total number of Iraqi troops in Kuwait has remained unchanged in recent days, at around 430,000. In the last month there has been some shifting, with infantry units moving forward and armored units back, but that has now stopped. Contrary to recent reports, Iraqi units aren't moving north, away from the Kuwaiti-Saudi Arabian border, according to administration officials. They continue to prepare defensive positions in the south.
Iraqi military engineers are building roads in Kuwait to make it easier to move their armored forces around, according to US intelligence information. Tanks are being dug in, a standard defensive position, and antitank ditches are being constructed.
``Their focus is much more on enhancement than augmentation right now,'' said a senior administration official in a meeting with defense reporters.
US forces in the Gulf now total around 210,000, with about 100,000 Army, 45,000 Marines, and the rest split between Air Force and Navy. Part of the reason for Powell's Gulf visit was to determine whether or not the US deployment is now complete, said Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams on Tuesday. Army generals have reportedly pushed for two more tank divisions to be sent to Saudi Arabia. It's likely that at the very least some heavier mechanized forces will be sent to replace lighter, more mobile US units that were among the first to arrive in the Arabian desert.
The command and control structure for the multinational forces in Saudi Arabia continues to be a source of concern. Though US commanders have adequate procedures worked out with European allies, communication with Arab units could be better. ``It's not like the New York Philharmonic on a good day,'' said the senior administration official.
Not all promised Arab troops have yet materialized. Lack of airlift has delayed arrival of one of the two promised Egyptian divisions, as well as a Syrian armored division. The problem of supporting these forces when they do arrive has yet to be solved, as both Syria and Egypt have large stocks of Soviet-made weapons which are incompatible with US ammunition and spare parts.
The US and its allies haven't yet decided when, or if, to use military force to oust Iraq from Kuwait. Given the disparate nature of the allies, it's possible that unanimity will never be reached. The senior administration official says he can foresee a situation where some countries decide sanctions haven't worked, and urge military action, while others object. While the US doesn't have a ``blank check'' for the use of armed might, he says, ``you don't necessarily give a veto to everyone that has contributed forces, either.''
US policy still holds that Saddam Hussein himself doesn't have to be ousted. If Iraq withdrew unconditionally, yet maintained its army at home, control mechanisms such as a permanent Arab peacekeeping force in Kuwait could be a viable, long-term strategy, according to the White House. ``We can cope with success,'' said the official.