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  •   U.S. Avoids Military Threat After Fresh Iraqi Defiance

    By Barton Gellman and John M. Goshko
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Friday, August 7, 1998; Page A01

    The Clinton administration, which less than six months ago vowed a swift and sure resort to force if Iraq interfered with United Nations disarmament inspectors, backed away from that military threat yesterday in the face of fresh Iraqi defiance.

    With Baghdad in open breach of a Feb. 23 agreement that averted a large-scale attack on Iraq, President Clinton and his spokesmen unveiled a new approach that emphasized instead the maintenance of eight-year-old economic sanctions as their principal reply.

    A senior national security policymaker said the United States reserves the option to launch air strikes "if we determine there is a threat that requires it." But the administration made clear that it saw no such threat in Iraq's declaration Wednesday that it will halt nearly all weapons inspections and answer no further questions from the U.N. Special Commission charged with discovering and dismantling Iraqi programs to develop weapons of mass destruction.

    Clinton, in a written statement, described the new Iraqi position as "unacceptable" and a "failure to live up to its obligations." But he made no reference to his government's several public pledges last winter, such as the one made March 3 by Assistant Secretary of State James P. Rubin, that "military force will ensue if Iraq violates this agreement."

    Clinton said only that "the United States will stop any and all efforts" to ease the economic stranglehold placed on the Baghdad government after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

    Yesterday's public statements followed a policy review last spring, undisclosed until now, in which Clinton's national security cabinet concluded that it could no longer back intrusive U.N. inspections with the threat or use of American military force -- a centerpiece of U.S. containment efforts since the administration of President George Bush.

    Among the factors cited by officials knowledgeable about the review were: declining political support for use of force among even the closest U.S. allies; the inability of the U.N. inspectors to turn up major new evidence of Iraqi development of ballistic missiles or chemical, biological or nuclear weapons; and the need to remove the power of President Saddam Hussein, with each new provocation, to cause a massive U.S. military deployment that last time cost $1.4 billion in Pentagon funds and a major expenditure of U.S. diplomatic capital in Europe and in friendly Arab states.

    The administration did all it could yesterday to tamp down expectations of a new test of wills.

    "Let's not raise the temperature before it's appropriate," said P. J. Crowley, the White House national security spokesman. State Department spokesman James Foley said, "We're not calling it a crisis at the moment, simply because events have just happened in the last 24 hours."

    Some U.S. officials held out hope that U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, who negotiated Iraq's last inspection pledge in February, might use quiet diplomacy to restore Iraqi promises of cooperation with special weapons inspectors. Annan, who spoke yesterday to Iraq's deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, told reporters, "I believe that the Iraqi position on this issue is not a closed one."

    Annan gave strong backing to chief inspector Richard Butler, who has come under fresh attack from the Russian government, and described Iraq as "in violation" of binding Security Council resolutions.

    The Security Council described Iraq's inspection halt as "totally unacceptable," but it said nothing about what it would do should Iraq fail to reverse itself. The last binding Security Council resolution, passed in March, threatened "severest consequences" for Iraqi breaches of the inspection agreement, which Rubin and others described then as "diplomatic code for military action."

    During that confrontation last winter, the United States mobilized an armada of 290 warplanes and two aircraft carrier battle groups and laid plans for an offensive involving thousands of air strikes. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and National Security Adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger declared repeatedly that Iraq had only two choices: full cooperation with the U.N. Special Commission or a bombing campaign that would do great damage to its remaining capacity to build nuclear, biological and chemical weapons and the missiles capable of delivering them.

    Yesterday, a senior government point man on Iraq policy said "at this point we don't feel that's necessary." The United States "reserves the option of using force at the time and place of our choosing," the official said, but the administration has concluded that "controlling [Saddam Hussein's] ability to get money is the best way, and has been for some years, to keep him from being in a position to rebuild his military and his weapons of mass destruction."

    The policy review accompanied the decision by top administration policymakers in June to withdraw most of the armada they assembled in and around the Persian Gulf during the winter crisis -- from a peak of 32,800 troops and two aircraft carriers to 19,650 and one, at present the USS Abraham Lincoln.

    The changing landscape addressed by the review included the faltering health of key Arab allies, Saudi Arabia's King Fahd and Jordan's King Hussein, and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's open disapproval of further military threats against Iraq. Berger observed in subsequent meetings, according to participants, that nuclear tests by India and Pakistan, which did not result in military threats, and the stalemated Israeli-Palestinian peace talks also undermined support for use of force.

    Gellman reported from Washington and Goshko from the United Nations.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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