January—the fifth month of our deployment—began with a pace substantially slower than at any time since we left. In Washington and New York, officials were enjoying the holiday vacation period. In the Arabian Gulf region, Ramadan had begun and military activity in both Iraq and Iran had subsided somewhat. The Nimitz (CVN-68) left Jebel Ali on New Year's Day and joined the George Washington (CVN-73) operating in the northern Arabian Gulf.
In addition to flying sorties to support Operation Southern Watch, Task Force 50 is enforcing the United Nations-imposed sanctions against Iraq, which involves U.S. and other nations' ships intercepting, boarding, and inspecting merchant vessels proceeding in and out of southern Iraqi ports. The vessels are checked for proper papers and authorized cargo (under U.N. Security Council Resolution 986, Iraq can sell a set amount of oil each six months in return for food and medicine) and either released or, if suspected of carrying contraband, diverted to one of the Gulf countries for further legal action.
During the first few years after the Gulf War, the maritime interdiction effort was very successful, as more than 80% of illegal gasoil carriers were intercepted and diverted. By 1996, however, the Iranians were fully complicit in a sanctions-evasion scheme. Now only approximately 10% of illegal carriers are intercepted. By late 1997, it was estimated that Iraq was smuggling about 100,000 metric tons of gasoil per month.
Just before Christmas, the Task Force 50 maritime interdiction effort was shifted to place a larger presence in the southern Arabian Gulf. The effort proved somewhat successful, resulting in a handful of diverts in a few weeks. In one example, the Ukrainian-flagged merchant vessel Inzhener Gulyayev , carrying more than 4,000 metric tons of gasoil, was intercepted in the southern Arabian Gulf. The Gulyayev was held at anchor outside United Arab Emirates territorial waters while the U.S. State Department worked to find a country to accept the vessel; eventually, the ship was escorted to an anchorage off Qatar. That was late December. As of early February, the Gulyayev was still anchored, waiting to be diverted to either Qatar or Bahrain. Her owners in Dubai wanted nothing to do with her, and a U.S. Navy ship had to maintain a constant watch until the divert was completed—highlighting how manpower-intensive it is to maintain a maritime interdiction effort that has minimal effect on the overall volume of contraband being smuggled.
Escorts Head Home
Early- to mid-January brought about a couple of other developments. First, the Nimitz 's escorts—the ships that formed the Nimitz Battle Group from initial workups through deployment—were beginning to leave the Gulf as scheduled. Because the Nimitz was heading to Norfolk, Virginia, after the cruise for a two-year overhaul and refueling, the battle group never was intended to return to the United States intact. On 10 January, the Port Royal (CG-73) left the Gulf; two days later, the Lake Champlain (CG-57), Kinkaid (DD-965), Ford (FFG-54), and Sacramento (AOE-26) all left. By mid-January, the Nimitz operated in the Arabian Gulf with the George Washington and her Atlantic Fleet escorts while the Nimitz 's escorts sailed home. To compound the pain, the Secretary of Defense now required a two-carrier presence in the Arabian Gulf without a gap and ordered the Independence (CV-62) to leave her home port of Yokosuka, Japan, and relieve the Nimitz by 6 February. This meant the Nimitz would not leave the Gulf on 26 January as scheduled.
By mid-January, the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) was creeping back into the news. The issue, again, was access to sites—which the Iraqis appeared determined to thwart. The controversy centered around UNSCOM inspection team 227, headed by American Scott Ritter. Ritter was tasked with carrying out inspections of particularly sensitive sites and had exposed Iraqi deception in the past. From 13 to 15 January, the Iraqis refused to provide Ritter's team with the necessary escorts, effecting a de facto obstruction of a UNSCOM inspection and a clear snub of the Security Council's mandate. In so doing, the Iraqis raised the composition issue again, claiming Ritter's team was dominated by Americans. After Ritter's team was stood up for the third time, UNSCOM Chairman Richard Butler withdrew team 227 a day early and sent them back to Bahrain.
The Security Council passed a statement 15 January "deploring" the Iraqi decision and calling their continued noncompliance "unacceptable." On 16 January, Saddam addressed his nation on the seventh anniversary of the beginning of the Gulf War, and implicitly threatened to terminate cooperation with UNSCOM if the inspection work was not completed by May as the Iraqi National Assembly had demanded.
These developments created an ominous setting for Mr. Butler's 19-21 January trip to Baghdad. The Iraqis would not discuss the issue of access during the meetings; they preferred to discuss the national composition of UNSCOM and—in a new twist—accused UNSCOM of not possessing the scientific experts necessary to accomplish the disarmament mission. Instead, according to Tariq Aziz, UNSCOM was dominated by Anglo-Saxon "cops" who perpetuated the inspection process to enhance their own prestige. The Iraqis announced a "freeze" on all inspections of "sensitive" and "presidential" sites until after a series of evaluation meetings in February.
On 23 January, Mr. Butler delivered a largely negative report to the Security Council, and claimed continued Iraqi defiance on the issue of access had made it impossible for UNSCOM to complete its mission of disarming Iraq under the objectives set forth in U.N. Security Council Resolution 687. This was a defining moment for the fate of UNSCOM in particular and the viability of collective security in the post-Cold War world in general. The United States and Great Britain took the 23 January report as an admission that the inspection process had become ineffectual and that the diplomatic options to repair that state of affairs were dwindling rapidly. Indeed, the ball was now rolling toward the most serious use of force against Iraq since the 1991 Gulf War cease fire. The administration had made a tactical shift and now, instead of simply saying that the use of force was not ruled out, was more directly threatening the use of force with the hope that Saddam would back down.
Russia immediately dispatched an envoy, Deputy Prime Minister Viktor Posuvalyuk, to Baghdad to urge the Iraqis back from the brink once again. Posuvalyuk had served as the Soviet Union's Ambassador to Iraq during the Gulf War in 1991. This time around, however, it appeared less likely that Moscow would be able to pull off an eleventh-hour reprieve for Iraq. Unlike November 1997, when the issue was the makeup of nationalities of UNSCOM and the use of U.S. U-2s, this time the dispute boiled down to its most fundamental element—the United Nations' demand for unconditional access. All indications pointed to a Baghdad resigned to absorbing a military strike that, by Saddam's calculation, would enhance world sympathy for Iraq's plight and give him reason to sever cooperation with UNSCOM completely.
Back in Washington, the President delivered the State of the Union address on 27 January amid allegations of marital infidelity and, more seriously, perjury and obstruction of justice related to the affair. The next day, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright embarked on a six-day trip primarily to deliver to allies the definitive U.S. position on Iraq and to put them on notice that the unilateral use of force was not long in waiting. Her meeting with Primakov on 30 January produced no real progress and prompted an admission by Primakov that the use of force might be inevitable despite Russia's adamant opposition to such an option. The French remained in favor of seeking a diplomatic solution, but acknowledged that "all options" were open.
Meanwhile on the Nimitz , at 0200 on 26 January, sailors rose to watch Denver upset Green Bay in Super Bowl XXXII, which was broadcast live on a big screen display in the hangar bay. That day and the next, officers of the Task Force Commander's staff, the air wing staff, and the ship prepared for the upcoming turnover with the Independence Battle Group, scheduled for 5-6 February. By Wednesday, 28 January, however, word was trickling down that a military strike could come in the first two weeks of February and that the Nimitz could be held past her 7 February departure date. Rumors such as that spread through the close confines of a ship in a matter of minutes, and the possibility of not returning home on time suddenly became very real for more than 5,000 Americans.
Also on 28 January, the Task Force staff hosted liaison meetings with British officers from HMS Invincible , which had just arrived in the Arabian Gulf. The meetings took on an air of isolation as officers from both countries knew they served the last two members of the Gulf War coalition still committed to using force if Saddam refused to comply with U.N. Security Council resolutions.
Rumors, speculation, and conjecture resonated throughout the passageways of the Nimitz on 29 January as the crew prepared the ship for her fourth, and hopefully final, port visit to Jebel Ali. This last port visit was designed, in part, to compensate for the Nimitz 's loss of a Mediterranean port visit.
On Friday, 30 January, as she was entering port, the Nimitz received two dramatic pieces of news. The Task Force staff received a call from the operations officer at the Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Atlantic Fleet, in Norfolk. Apparently, the Chief of Naval Operations was not pleased when he learned that the Nimitz was not getting a port visit in the Mediterranean. He directed that the Nimitz 's schedule be reworked to give top priority to a three-day port visit, even if that meant canceling the "Tiger" cruise from Mayport, Florida, to Norfolk (when crew members can embark two guests for the short trip north). He also insisted that the Nimitz not be extended beyond 180 days away from home port, a commitment the Navy has kept since the early 1980s, except during the Gulf War. But because the use of force seemed to be close at hand, the Commander-in-Chief, Central Command (CinCCent), issued a request to the Joint Chiefs of Staff for additional forces to be deployed to the Arabian Gulf region, and asked for the Nimitz to be extended in the Gulf until 20 February. For the Nimitz , this was the first solid information indicating that an extended stay was quite possible.
Lieutenant Commander Bray serves as the assistant intelligence officer to Commander Carrier Group Seven in San Diego.