The Clinton administration is accelerating efforts to win war crimes indictments of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and his top aides, publicizing new evidence of Iraqi human rights abuses and urging European allies to arrest ranking Iraqi officials who visit their countries, senior officials said yesterday.
But the effort has little backing in the U.N. Security Council, whose cooperation is critical to the campaign. The administration is under growing pressure from critics in Congress who say it has not done enough to help Iraqi opposition groups dedicated to toppling the regime. Representatives of all the major opposition organizations are meeting in New York this weekend to plot strategy and rally support for their cause.
State Department officials said yesterday that the main thrust of the war crimes initiative will be to compile and publicize evidence--including satellite photographs of recent Iraqi military operations in southern Iraq--with the aim of turning Saddam Hussein and his top aides into international outlaws.
In addition, they said, U.S. diplomats raised the possibility of an international war crimes tribunal on Iraq--similar to those that have investigated atrocities in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia--in private discussions last summer with representatives of other governments holding Security Council seats. They also disclosed that Washington urged the Austrian government to detain a senior Iraqi official who traveled to Vienna in August for medical treatment.
"Saddam Hussein and his henchmen are still viewed by some governments as legitimate, tolerable leaders of a country somehow under siege by the international community," said David J. Scheffer, the State Department's ambassador-at-large for war crimes, in a speech yesterday at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "The United States government is determined to see this clique of Iraqi criminals stripped of their power and, if possible, brought to justice."
This is hardly the first time that U.S. officials have sought international backing for such an effort. The Bush administration did so in the aftermath of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and President Clinton's first secretary of state, Warren Christopher, also vowed to make a priority of indicting the Iraqi leader.
The stumbling block, then and now, has been the U.N. Security Council. "The United States never brings this issue before the council because they know they have no support," said one European diplomat. Another diplomat who represents a government on the council said China and Russia would veto any war crimes resolution on Iraq.
State Department officials say there are steps the United States can take even without a Security Council resolution. One possibility, they said, is that friendly governments could arrest Iraqi officials who travel abroad and prosecute them under international conventions relating to crimes against humanity.
In August, for example, the United States urged Austrian authorities to prevent the departure of Izzat Ibrahim Douri, vice chairman of Iraq's Revolutionary Command Council, after he traveled to Vienna for treatment in a private clinic. Had they done so, officials said, the United States was prepared to hand over documents that could have helped Austrian prosecutors bring a case against him. But Douri fled the country before the new approach could be tested.
Anticipating that similar opportunities will arise, the United States is preparing evidence against individual Iraqi officials that could be provided to foreign governments. "Clearly the gathering of information is in part an exercise in building dossiers against particular individuals," a senior official said, explaining that such dossiers could prove "useful" if one of the Iraqis "happens to travel to Europe."
State Department officials noted that after the Douri episode, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz canceled plans to attend a conference in Rome, apparently because he feared arrest.
Special correspondent Colum Lynch contributed to this report from the United Nations.