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  • Iraq Special Report
  •   President Narrows Goals For Airstrikes

    By Barton Gellman and Edward Walsh
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Saturday, February 7, 1998; Page A01

    President Clinton said yesterday that the aim of an American-led bombardment of Iraq would be to "substantially reduce or delay" Iraq's ability to develop and use nonconventional weapons, the narrowest and most precise formulation to date of the administration's military objectives should it carry out threats to use force against the Baghdad government.

    Senior foreign policy advisers said the president's words deliberately ruled out two alternative aims proposed by officials and commentators in recent days: to remove Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from power or to compel him to halt obstruction of United Nations disarmament inspectors.

    Both of those greater ambitions, administration officials said, remain desirable. But the president and his national security team have concluded that neither is within the probable reach of a military strike and neither should be declared its objective.

    The president's narrower focus has implications for the design of any military campaign. Some officials, in internal debates, had advocated a coercive air campaign that would begin with heavy bombing and then deliver an ultimatum of additional strikes if Saddam Hussein continued to turn away U.N. inspectors.

    "That formula, strike and then wait, never made it up to [Cabinet] levels because people understood the fundamental problem that it's too easy for Saddam to have in effect mastery of the situation," one high-ranking official said. "You make it too easy for him to succeed by defying you."

    Clinton's remarks were made at the close of a joint news conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the only full partner in the American threat of violence in the latest confrontation with Iraq.

    Asked whether he believed that "airstrikes alone" would prevent Saddam Hussein from acquiring biological, chemical and nuclear weapons, the president replied with a reference to "the limits as well as the possibilities of any kind of military action," then added:

    "I think the precise question should be, that I should have to ask and answer, is could any military action, if all else fails, substantially reduce or delay Saddam Hussein's capacities to develop weapons of mass destruction and to deliver them on his neighbors? The answer to that, I am convinced, is yes."

    In earlier public statements, some senior administration officials suggested that the purpose of military force would be to secure Iraq's compliance with the binding U.N. Security Council disarmament resolutions that ended the 1991 Persian Gulf War, including allowing unrestricted access for weapons inspectors.

    Before departing for an eight-nation tour of Europe and the Middle East, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright was asked at a Jan. 28 news conference whether the use of force against Saddam Hussein would be "intended to coerce him to do something" or "intended to replace him." She replied, "It is intended to coerce him."

    "You asked me, 'coerce or replace,' " Albright said in a brief telephone interview yesterday. "What I should have done is picked my own choice, which is to say that was to deter him and thwart him in his attempt to get weapons of mass destruction. Instead, I was trying very hard not to take your other choice, which was the leadership question."

    Albright and a senior aide distinguished between the administration's policy goals, which include Iraq's full cooperation with the U.N. Special Commission, and its expectations of what can be accomplished by even a substantial air campaign.

    "The goal here is to get his full compliance," Albright said. "That's what we've been saying for seven years now in the Security Council. . . . That's the purpose of the sanctions, that's the purpose of everything we do, which is to get him to comply."

    Clinton's remarks yesterday were the first public contemplation by the administration of the possibility that U.N. inspectors may never be permitted meaningful access to suspected weapons sites in Iraq.

    "If the inspection regime is dead, and therefore we cannot continue to make progress on getting the stuff out of there . . . if that is dead, is there an option which would permit us to reduce and/or delay his capacity to bring those weapons up and deliver them? I think the answer to that is yes. There is an option that would permit that," Clinton said.

    Yesterday's presidential remarks followed demands for clarification from Republican leaders in Congress, who are backing Clinton in the showdown with Iraq but arguing for more ambitious goals. Some have suggested that any action that falls short of ousting Saddam Hussein from power would amount to failure.

    Clinton rejected that test yesterday.

    "I don't believe we need to refight the Gulf War," he said. "It's history. It happened, that's the way it is. I don't believe we need to get into a direct war with Iraq over the leadership of the country. Do I think the country would be better served if it had a different leader? Of course I do. That's not the issue."

    Blair echoed Clinton, saying that on Iraq "we stand together."

    "The objective is very clear," Blair said. "That is to ensure either that the weapon inspectors can come in and finish their task, or that the capability that Saddam Hussein undoubtedly has and wants to develop for weapons of mass destruction is taken out."

    "If the inspectors are prevented from doing their work," Blair added, "then we have to make sure, by the military means of which we are capable, that insofar as possible that capacity ceases. And that's the objective."

    As another gesture of British solidarity with the United States in the showdown with Iraq, Blair announced that in the next few days his government will send eight Tornado GR-1 ground attack and reconnaissance aircraft to neighboring Kuwait. The British earlier dispatched an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf, where it has joined the USS Nimitz, the George Washington, the Independence and an armada of supporting U.S. warships.

    Blair said he and Clinton had agreed on the need to "educate" the public about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's access to weapons of mass destruction, and that they should simultaneously seek a diplomatic solution to the stalemate while preparing for military action.

    In an example of attempts to rally public opinion behind the hard-line stance against Saddam Hussein, the British Foreign Office this week released a report detailing some of the weapons that were discovered and destroyed by U.N. teams during previous inspections of Iraqi facilities. According to the report, these included 38,000 chemical weapons, 480,000 liters of live chemical weapon agents, 48 operational missiles, six missile launchers and 30 special missile warheads for chemical and biological weapons.

    Yesterday afternoon Blair and some of his senior domestic policy advisers attended what was called a "seminar" on domestic issues with U.S. domestic policy officials at the White House. Clinton, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Vice President Gore participated in part of the session.

    Last night the Clintons and Blair and his wife, Cherie, flew by helicopter to Camp David in the Maryland mountains. Blair is the first foreign visitor that Clinton has invited to the presidential retreat. The prime minister is scheduled to return to London today.


    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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