Decision To Strike Iraq Nears
By John F. Harris and John M. Goshko
After months of pursuing a series of diplomatic initiatives in the showdown with Iraq, a consensus among senior Clinton advisers emerged during hours of intensive White House meetings in recent days that military action will be necessary to force Iraq's compliance with United Nations resolutions, according to senior administration officials and others who have spoken with top U.S. policymakers.
Already many of these discussions are focusing on what actions would follow a campaign of heavy air bombardment led by the United States with assistance from Britain, according to sources. Under one scenario being considered by the administration, a bombing campaign lasting several days would be followed by an expansion of the "no-fly" zones over Iraq to cover the entire country, sources said.
Administration officials said yesterday that they had not abandoned the possibility of a peaceful solution to the impasse. But they said Clinton has little hope for a breakthrough unless he puts U.S. naval and air forces on a countdown to military intervention, and notifies allied governments that a strike is imminent.
The administration's expression of resolve coincided with a severe indictment of Iraq yesterday by the chief of U.N. weapons inspections, Richard Butler. In a report to the U.N. Security Council, Butler warned that the Iraqi government's insistence on limiting access to suspected sites could prevent the United Nations from ever completing its search for hidden Iraqi programs to develop weapons of mass destruction.
Butler said that talks this week with deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz in Baghdad had failed to dissuade the Iraqis from barring the inspectors from the U.N. Special Commission (UNSCOM) from presidential palaces and other sites suspected of containing chemical and biological weapons. Instead, he cited "grave instances of attempts to mislead the commission and the council" and "abuse and denigration of UNSCOM and its professional officers" by the Iraqis.
In recent days, Clinton and other senior officials have spoken about Iraq in increasingly stark and urgent terms. Yesterday, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said of the impasse, "This is not something that can last much longer." Another senior official said, "We certainly are at least as far as we were in late November" of pursuing the military option.
But the shift has been almost entirely eclipsed by allegations that Clinton engaged in a sexual relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Clinton's political advisers said they are aware that some domestic critics or overseas opponents of a military strike may accuse Clinton of relying on military intervention as a diversion from the sex scandal. An administration official said such criticism would be "ludicrous" and "unfair" because Clinton has been consistent since last fall in warning that force could be used as a last resort.
Since November, when Saddam Hussein moved to exclude Americans from weapons inspection teams, two U.S. carrier groups have been in the Persian Gulf. The Pentagon has recently equiped ships and planes in the region with extra cruise missiles, precision-guided bombs and other munitions, sources said. The Navy has positioned more cruise missiles in the region than were launched during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
Clinton's foreign policy advisers are to meet today to discuss Butler's report and discuss the next steps. One likely scenario, sources said, is to try to garner support of a new resolution at the U.N. condemning Iraq's defiance. Increasingly, however, officials said they expected diplomacy to move away from the Security Council and toward direct consultation between Washington and its allies.
Administration officials said Russia, France, and other nations that have influence in Baghdad would be told of the U.S. intentions to strike Iraq, and encouraged to persuade Saddam Hussein to back down. Senior administration officials said they will also consider sending either Albright or Defense Secretary William S. Cohen to the Mideast to build support for the U.S. response.
One official noted that the diplomacy will probably be allowed a chance to work until British Prime Minister Tony Blair visits Washington on Feb. 5 and 6. Some officials said Blair's appearances with Clinton may be a way to demonstrate international resolve and warn Saddam Hussein that he has a last chance to back down.
U.S. expectations about the aim of a military response have changed somewhat since November. Then, senior officials said, the assumption was that if the United States resorted to bombing there would be no possibility of resuming the U.N. inspections. Today, officials intend to maintain pressure on Iraq after an attack to let the inspectors back to work. The expansion of the "no-fly" zones, or perhaps restrictions placed on Iraqi sea ports, could be used as levers to force Iraq to comply, they said.
So far, only Britain has shown open support for the threat of military action against Iraq. Yesterday, the initial responses by members of the Security Council to Butler's report showed that if the the United States wants to pursue a military option to force compliance, it will have to act largely on its own. Four of the five permanent members with the power to veto any council decision -- the United States and Britain on one side and Russia and China on the other -- took very different approaches about how tough the council should be.
"Iraq's response can be described in one word -- defiance, and that we find unacceptable," U.S. Ambassador Bill Richardson said. The British ambassador, Sir John Weston, said he "did not see how the Security Council can acquiesce in such a situation while wishing to retain any credibility."
However, Russian Ambassador Sergei Lavrov, whose government advocates a flexible approach to Iraq, said Butler's report offered hints that there had been progress toward resolving the access dispute. In what was a clear reference to the idea of military action, Lavrov warned, "It is necessary to avoid any steps which would disturb the relations between Iraq and the United Nations. Diplomatic means is the only way."
A similar line was taken by Chinese Ambassador Qin Huasun. He said: "We have always believed Iraq should fully implement Security Council relations and cooperation with UNSCOM. At the same time, as a sovereign state, Iraq's dignity and legitimate security considerations should be taken into account. . . . Any prejudgments about action should be avoided."
Given the opposition of Russia, China and others to military action, there seems little chance that the United States will succeed during the next few days in getting council approval of a resolution that would find Iraq "in material breach" of U.N. resolutions. While such a finding has been used in the past to authorize the use of force against Baghdad, U.S. officials have maintained that previous resolutions already give them authority for military action.
Many diplomats here believe a military strike would doom all future cooperation between the United Nations and Iraq, offer no guarantees that the bombing would achieve its objective of destroying hidden Iraqi weapons, and unleash a worldwide outcry against U.S. attacks endangering and even killing Iraqi civilians.
The severe economic sanctions imposed on Iraq after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait cannot be lifted until UNSCOM certifies to the council that the prohibited weapons have been eliminated. However, the Iraqis charge that continued inspections are an American-led plot to keep the sanctions in place indefinitely, and Saddam Hussein warned earlier this week that if UNSCOM does not complete its work by May 20, he might order the inspectors out of Iraq.
During the Baghdad talks with Butler, Aziz proposed that UNSCOM suspend efforts to enter the sites under dispute until April and await the results of meetings next month between U.N. and Iraqi experts to evaluate Iraqi compliance. If the access issue is still unresolved at that time, Aziz said, he and Butler could have further discussions.
Goshko reported from the United Nations. Staff writer Bradley Graham contributed to this report.
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