Kuwait said on Saturday its Western allies had not asked to use the gulf state as a launch point for possible military strikes against Iraq.

"No foreign power present (with forces in Kuwait) has asked to use Kuwait as a point for attack," Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Suleiman al-Shaheen told Reuters in an interview.U.S. and British troops and warplanes now in Kuwait were "defensive forces," Shaheen said.

He did not say what might be asked of Kuwait if U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan failed in his mission to Baghdad to resolve the standoff over U.N. arms inspections.

Most Arab states are strongly opposed to any attack.

The U.S. Navy, meanwhile, is cracking down on oil smuggling from Iraq, sending armed sailors in bulletproof vests to board more of the rusting barges and old ships that ferry Iraqi fuel through the Persian Gulf.

Navy ships on Saturday escorted another two suspected violators of U.N. sanctions to the spot off Bahrain where the destroyer USS Carney is already standing guard over four suspected smugglers.

"It used to be lucrative, but now we're shutting the taps," said Cmdr. Mark H. Buzby, the Carney's commanding officer. "We have cut it to a trickle in the last couple of months."

Two U.S. warships will sail for the gulf Sunday, one day earlier than expected, as part of plans to relieve the battle group led by the aircraft carrier George Washington, the Navy said.

The guided missile destroyers San Jacinto and Cole had planned to leave Monday, but a severe weather system is moving into the area around Hampton Roads on the coast of Virginia, a U.S. Atlantic Fleet statement said.

The aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis will sail Feb. 26 and catch up with the destroyers en route.

By the time the Stennis battle group reaches the gulf, the George Washington group will be about to complete its 180-day deployment and return to the United States.