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      Off-Again Airstrikes May Be On Again Soon, Officials Suspect

    By John F. Harris and Dana Priest
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Tuesday, November 17, 1998; Page A35

    President Clinton hailed the scheduled return today of U.N. weapons inspectors to Iraq, even as administration officials privately offered starkly pessimistic assessments about whether Baghdad's retreat last weekend will prove to be more than temporary.

    Amid this skepticism about Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's intentions, a debate continued to echo within the government yesterday about whether Clinton had made the right decision Saturday morning in aborting a massive military attack less than an hour before it was to begin.

    Several officials with direct knowledge of the deliberations yesterday said the critical factor leading Clinton to call off the attack, overriding the advice of several advisers, was a concern that international opinion would have turned sharply against the United States if the attack had gone ahead despite public statements by Iraq that it was ready to meet U.S. demands on weapons inspections. Pentagon officials had told the administration that the series of planned airstrikes could result in thousands of Iraqi deaths.

    "Had Saddam Hussein said, 'I'm about to give a press conference giving in,' and 20 minutes later thousands of tons of bombs rained down on Iraq . . . the moral high ground shifts back to him away from us," said a senior administration official.

    "He would have shown that he had compromised and that he was reasonable, and we would have looked like warmongers," said another national security official.

    The sensitivity to international opinion, officials said, reflects a judgment that isolating Iraq and maintaining support for harsh U.N. sanctions should be the top aim of U.S. policy. Over the past three months, the administration has seen international support for its containment strategy grow, even as Clinton was criticized at home for not being aggressive enough.

    But some officials, reflecting misgivings that were voiced in a hurried debate Saturday morning among Clinton's advisers, worried that the circumstances would never be better for punishing Saddam Hussein for a pattern of defiance that has lasted most of the past year. A military attack, said one national security official, "is going to happen sooner or later, and the signs were pretty well aligned."

    In addition, some defense officials remain worried about a "yo-yo effect," the expensive and morale-draining cycle of military buildup and stand-down caused by U.S. brinksmanship.

    Over the last week, as it did in February, the United States flung dozens of extra aircraft and thousands of military personnel toward the Persian Gulf. As of 2:15 p.m. Sunday, when pilots and squadron commanders received a verbal "freeze order" from the Defense Department, the force has been suspended in place across Europe, the gulf and the United States -- waiting, as one Air Force official put it yesterday, "until somebody makes up their mind in government."

    The buildup that followed the February crisis, in which Saddam also denied U.N. inspectors access to documents and suspected weapons sites, cost the United States $1.36 billion. Defense officials said they have not estimated the cost of the current buildup.

    Several officials yesterday said they continue to believe this force will see action if, as they suspect, Saddam Hussein reverts to a pattern of selectively denying access to inspectors.

    Clinton, appearing briefly before reporters at the White House yesterday, put a more upbeat cast on the situation. "As I have said from the start, the best outcome is to get the inspectors back on the job, provided they have unfettered access and full cooperation," he said.

    "Governments all over the world today stand united in sharing the conviction that full compliance, and nothing short of full compliance, is needed from Iraq," he added. "The world is watching Saddam Hussein to see if he follows the words he uttered with deeds. Our forces remain strong and ready if he does not."

    Defense Secretary William S. Cohen said that an attack could come next time without further warning.

    After a weekend in which Clinton came within minutes of using force, the White House was braced yesterday for domestic criticism suggesting Clinton was an equivocator. One frequent critic of the administration, Robert Zoellick, who held senior diplomatic posts in the Bush administration, said Clinton was "smarter this time" than in previous trips to the brink. "They moved quickly and without creating an international crescendo" of criticism, he said.

    But Zoellick said the administration still seemed bereft of a long-term strategy. "So you bomb: What's your ultimate objective . . . and how does the use of force achieve it?" he said.

    Similar questions were being asked by top military officers last week. While supporting the president's initial decision to launch the strikes, the Pentagon's military chiefs retained some measure of apprehension about the use of force, according to Defense Department sources familiar with their thinking. They worried that military action, even the kind of sustained air attacks over several days that were planned, would not be sufficient to prevent Iraq from rebuilding its nuclear, biological and chemical arsenals. They also were concerned about how the United States would cope with the likely case of Saddam Hussein rising from the ashes.

    "We collectively were still concerned about the day-after scenarios," said one high-ranking Pentagon official.

    "The chiefs were ambivalent about the military option, no question about it," said another senior official. "The question was, what would we do next?"

    While senior advisers, including Cohen, recommended going ahead with a military attack even after initial reports of Saddam Hussein's retreat, White House officials said all sides in Saturday morning's internal debate acknowledged the ambiguity of the choices.

    "Everybody believed it was a hard call," said one senior official.

    Staff writer Bradley Graham contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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