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

graphic November 6, 1998
Web posted at: 2:06 p.m. EST (1906 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The United States is ready to conduct airstrikes against Iraq at any time, if President Clinton makes the decision 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.

Officials say airstrikes against Iraq would need little logistical support from countries in the region, which have been reluctant to give permission for the launching of offensive strikes from their bases.

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

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."

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.

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.

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.

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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