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U.S. ready to strike Iraq if Clinton gives order

graphic November 6, 1998
Web posted at: 6:19 p.m. EST (2319 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The United States is ready to strike Iraq at any time, if President Clinton decides to take military action in the latest dispute over weapons inspections, Pentagon officials say.

Pentagon sources say the United States has plans on the shelf for airstrikes using airplanes and cruise missiles already in the Persian Gulf, as well as bombers on alert at U.S. bases.

Airstrikes could be launched with no warning, and without the movement of other forces or warplanes to the Gulf region, officials say.

The Pentagon says it has a substantial force in the Gulf already, including more than 300 cruise missiles, more than were fired against Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War. Sources say B-2 and F-117s stealth bombers are on a 96-hour alert in the United States, along with B-52 bombers with air-launched cruise missiles.

CNN State Department Correspondent Andrea Koppel reports
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In addition, officials say airstrikes against Iraq would need little logistical support from countries in the region, which have been reluctant to give permission to launch offensive strikes from their bases.

Defense Secretary William Cohen was to return Friday night from a tour of U.S. allies in the Gulf region and Europe.

"We would ask that we have the support of all our friends should military action be required," Cohen said Friday.

Asked at a stop in Ankara, Turkey, how close the United States is to military action, Cohen said, "We are hoping Saddam Hussein will take action to reconsider his flagrant violation of the Security Council resolutions and his agreement with Secretary-General Kofi Annan immediately. And we think it's important that that decision of his be reversed very soon."

The U.N. Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution Thursday condemning Iraq for breaking off cooperation with U.N. weapons inspections. The resolution states that sanctions against Iraq will not be lifted until Iraqi President Saddam Hussein "immediately and unconditionally" reverses his decision.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said Friday the United States welcomes the U.N. Security Council's resolution on Iraq, which she called "unequivocal" in its call to Baghdad to cooperate with UNSCOM.

"The Security Council sent a very strong message," said Albright, emphasizing it is important for Saddam Hussein to "listen to the international community."

Though the resolution passed by the 15-member council does not authorize military action, Albright reiterated the U.S. position that "all options remain on the table."

But unilateral strikes, or strikes with limited allied support would undercut the U.S. argument that the current crisis is a dispute between Iraq and the United Nations.

In addition, U.S. strikes could cause political problems for the rulers of the Gulf states, such as Saudi Arabia, where the royal family is concerned about fueling anti-American sentiment that could destabilize the country.

National Security Adviser Sandy Berger has been dispatched to Europe for further consultations with U.S. allies. Cohen stops in Paris before returning to Washington Friday night.

U.S. intelligence reports say that, while Iraq is taking some "defensive precautions," it is not yet bracing for airstrikes. Some SA-3 and SA-6 anti-aircraft missiles have been moved into new positions, and some ground troops have been dispersed.

The United States is banking on the credible threat of force making the actual use of force unnecessary. But what remains unclear is to what extent the United States has the backing of any ally besides Britain, and whether the United States would be willing to act alone.

Military Affairs Correspondent Jamie McIntyre contributed to this report.

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