Thursday, June 24, 1993

Iraqi Forces Go on Alert at Iran Border

Iraqi Forces Go on Alert at Iran Border

New York Times
June 24, 1993

Iraq has moved some troops closer to the Iranian border and put its air defenses on high alert in its largest military mobilization since the Persian Gulf war, American officials said today.

Intelligence officials have said the flurry of activity appears to reflect Baghdad's fears of a new Iranian attack rather than plans for an offensive strike of its own. But the moves have raised concern within the Clinton Administration, where officials say they are uncertain of Iraq's intentions.

The officials would provide little information about the Iraqi mobilization. They said it was possible that the buildup is simply a military exercise. Or, they said, it might have been ordered in anticipation of a military strike by the United States for Baghdad's role in a suspected assassination plot against former President George Bush.

Officials said a new report by the F.B.I. pointed strongly to Iraqi involvement in the suspected plot. But they said a final decision about an American response would probably not be made for several weeks, and that the Iraqi mobilization might complicate American planning. Iranian Air Raid Against Iraq

But the officials said intelligence assessments being circulated within the Government pointed to the renewed tensions between Iran and Iraq as the most likely explanation for the Iraqi alert.

Iran last month launched an air raid against Iraqi bases used by the People's Mujahedeen, the main Iranian opposition movement. Since that raid, Tehran has become more blunt in accusing Baghdad of complicity in rebel "terrorist attacks," including raids on oil pipelines near the giant Abadan oil refinery.

In a sign of the new high-alert posture, United States warplanes have detected intensified efforts by Iraqi antiaircraft units to track their flights over southern Iraq, the American officials said. The most recent incidents occurred early Sunday, when two Air Force F-4's twice reported contacts from Iraqi ground-based radar, a violation of United Nations rules prohibiting interference with the patrols.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, refused to provide many details about the Iraqi mobilization. They said that to do so could jeopardize intelligence and compromise any future American effort to use military force against Iraq, which is locked in a new dispute with the United Nations over its refusal to allow international inspectors to install remote cameras to monitor two missile test sites. Conflict May Be Imminent

Some of the officials nevertheless said the size of the Iraqi operation suggested that Baghdad believes some sort of conflict may be imminent.

The Iraqi army is now thought to number about 400,000 soldiers, but the officials said tonight that only a few units may have actually been shifted toward Iran as part of the mobilization. They said it was more significant for the heightened state of Iraqi preparedness than for the movement of troops.

An American official said there were also signs that Iran has built up its forces along its 730-mile border with Iraq, but he said that evidence was not conclusive.

Both Iran and Iraq have used harsh language in recent months in accusing each other of launching cross-border raids. Their verbal skirmishing has at times seemed to echo that which preceded the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, in which total casualties have been estimated at one million.

The two sides have also shown some signs of cooperation, most notably in an apparent deal allowing sales of Iraqi oil through Iran in violation of United Nations sanctions. On Tuesday, Teheran also agreed to repatriate some 450 Iraqi soldiers who had sought refuge in Iran during the gulf war.

But the tensions have turned to open hostility since early May, when the Mujahedeen launched the first of a series of raids against military posts, oil installations and other targets in Iran. The rebels insist that the offensive has been carried out by operatives inside Iran, but Teheran retaliated on May 25 by sending fighter-bombers to attack opposition groups that are based as much as 60 miles inside Iraq.

In a letter to Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Iran's delegate to the United Nations contended that retaliation was justified because Iraq gave support to military and logistical support to the raids. But Iraq has vowed to avenge the air raid -- the second since April 1992.

The Mujahedeen have more recently taken credit for a series of even more brazen attacks carried out on June 11, including one which they said blew up part of Iran's oil refinery.

The Iranian Government has denied that the raid took place. But it was also slow to acknowledge the earlier attacks, and American officials said in interviews this week that they expected Teheran to attempt some sort of retaliation against the Mujahedeen or their Iraqi supporters.

The United States pilots subjected to the Iraqi air-defense scrutiny in southern Iraq have not perceived themselves to be endangered by it, and have chosen not to respond with force, Pentagon officials said.

The American patrols are intended to enforce the no-flight zone imposed over southern Iraq by the United Nations to protect Shiite civilians from Iraqi air strikes.