Tick, Tick, Tick

As the U.N. deadline for Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait nears, George Bush seeks to convince Saddam Hussein that his time is running out

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Whatever the prospects for a shooting war, the war of nerves in the Persian Gulf intensified last week. "The clock ticks toward war or peace," observes Robert Hunter, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "But nobody knows what time it is." With only two weeks remaining before the United Nations' Jan. 15 deadline for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait, George Bush seemed determined to convince Saddam Hussein that his time is running out. But with questions of U.S. military readiness and resolve still unanswered, Saddam appeared to be pondering a last-minute maneuver that would make it harder to dislodge him peacefully from Kuwait — and more difficult to use force to oust him.

As the first of several signals that the U.S. is preparing for combat, Bush dispatched 17 more warships to the gulf, which will bring the total to 64. The formidable armada includes the giant aircraft carriers America and Theodore Roosevelt; all told, six American carriers, with as many as 300 attack planes, will be within striking distance of Iraq on Jan. 15. The State Department ordered the evacuation of all nonessential staff and dependents from U.S. embassies in Jordan and Sudan, where pro-Iraqi sentiment runs high.

In an especially ominous move, officials said the Pentagon would soon start to vaccinate American troops against the potential threat of Iraqi germ warfare. The CIA has been warning that Iraq, despite its denials, has developed biological weapons. But even inoculations are no guarantee against germ warfare, which can be conducted through dozens of different strains of various organisms, each requiring a separate vaccine. Saddam's arsenal is believed to include anthrax as well as botulism, a form of stomach poisoning for which there is no vaccine.

For its part, Iraq added to the jitters by conducting two test firings of surface-to-surface missiles within its territory. Saddam also made a series of bellicose statements, telling a Spanish television channel that if war broke out, Israel would suffer the first retaliatory blow. "We consider that the responsibility for the Arab conflicts falls on Israel and the Zionists," he warned. "It is they who have pushed Bush into the dead-end street in which he now finds himself." To a Mexican television interviewer, Saddam vowed that the al-Sabah family, deposed by the Iraqi invasion, will "never again rule" Kuwait.

Meanwhile, diplomatic efforts to find a peaceful solution continued to stall. Both the U.S. and Iraq denied reports published in an Israeli newspaper, Ma'ariv, that the two nations had secretly agreed on Jan. 9 as the date for Secretary of State James Baker to meet with Saddam in Baghdad. Arab sources close to Baghdad claimed that the U.S. and Iraq have agreed in principle to go ahead with the Baker meeting as well as a meeting between Bush and Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz, although the deal is not final and no dates have been set. The tentative agreement, they say, stems from secret contacts between Washington and Baghdad conducted via messages carried by Arab and European diplomats and even American businessmen. But when the highest- ranking American diplomat still in Baghdad, deputy chief of mission Joseph C. Wilson, met last week with Nizar Hamdoon, Under Secretary of the Iraqi Foreign Ministry, in another attempt to arrange a mutually acceptable date, no progress was reported.

Though the Jan. 15 deadline was meant to put pressure on Saddam, it has also created a gnawing problem for Bush. The date was never intended to specify when military action would begin, but it inevitably came to be widely understood that way. That was one reason for the uproar that Lieut. General Calvin A.H. Waller, deputy commander of Operation Desert Shield, touched off when he said that American forces would not be ready for battle until mid- February. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and General Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, delivered similar assessments to Bush last week after they paid a five-day visit to Saudi Arabia. The principal reason for wanting more time is logistics: the need to build up stocks of sophisticated munitions.

The growing impression that the U.S. would not be prepared to attack on the morning of Jan. 16 seemed to undercut the pressure on Saddam to comply quickly with U.N. demands. To keep up the heat, Bush tried last week to dispel doubts about American military readiness. After interrupting his Christmas vacation in Camp David for a six-hour working stint at the White House, the President declared that the confidential briefings he had received from his top military advisers had left him with a "quite different" feeling about U.S. war preparations than press accounts indicated. "I'm not going to tell you what they said, but don't believe these reports you've been reading," insisted Bush. "It's under control. Don't be misled by these rabbit tracks running through the snow."

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