Over the past week, key U.S. allies have sent an unambiguous message to the Bush administration to give United Nations weapons inspectors in Iraq time to complete their work, even if it means delaying the onset of hostilities.
The allied opposition to an early war with Iraq has strengthened the hand of moderates in the administration who have been arguing against setting a firm deadline for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to comply with demands for giving up his weapons of mass destruction, according to U.S. officials and allied diplomats. According to these sources, the odds of a February war appear to be receding, barring a major Iraqi misstep that would galvanize Western governments and public opinion.
"The odds have gone down for war," said a well-placed U.S. official. "We don't have a good war plan; the inspectors have unprecedented access to Iraq; we have just started giving them intelligence; we have to give them more time to see how this works. There is no reason to stop the process until it can't proceed any further."
The apparent relaxation in administration rhetoric contrasts with statements by President Bush late last year advocating a "zero tolerance" policy toward Hussein. After weeks of insisting that U.S. forces were poised to intervene in Iraq if Hussein failed to properly account for his weapons of mass destruction, administration spokesmen are now echoing their European counterparts, and saying the inspectors should be given time to do their work.
Before this week, it appeared that the administration was intent on orchestrating a final confrontation with Baghdad soon after Jan. 27, when chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix is due to report back to the Security Council on Iraqi compliance with international demands for the nation's disarmament. This coincided with a major U.S. military buildup in the Persian Gulf region -- putting maximum pressure on Hussein and providing Bush with a credible military option to back up his threats of "regime change."
All of a sudden, this timetable seems in doubt. Not only are key allies such as Britain and France publicly calling for the United Nations to come up with clear-cut evidence of Iraqi wrongdoing, the military preparations for an attack on Iraq have encountered a hitch because of delays by Turkey in agreeing to the two-front North-South war plan developed by the Pentagon.
Although many administration officials believe that Turkey will eventually go along with "urgent" U.S. requests to station as many as 80,000 troops in the country in preparation for an attack on northern Iraq, it could take weeks to conclude the negotiations and move the troops into position. The lack of a definite response from Ankara has confronted the Bush administration with the difficult choice of delaying the war or abandoning plans for a northern front, which could mean higher U.S. casualties.
On the diplomatic front, some of the strongest words of caution have come from Britain, which until now has played the role of Washington's staunchest ally in the gathering showdown with Baghdad. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is coming under increasing pressure from his own Labor Party to distance himself from Bush, told the British cabinet on Thursday that the weapons inspectors should be given "time and space" to finish their work.
Blair said that the Jan. 27 date for Blix's report to the Security Council was "an important staging post," but "shouldn't be regarded in any sense as a deadline," according to British officials.
Both Britain and France want the United States to return to the Security Council for another resolution to endorse the use of military force against Hussein and to formally declare Iraq to be in "material breach" of its disarmament obligations. In order to get such a resolution through the Security Council, allied diplomats say it will probably be necessary for Blix to submit an unambiguous report accusing Baghdad of continuing its weapons of mass destruction programs.
In an interim report to the Security Council on Thursday, Blix criticized Iraq for failing to provide full information on its weapons programs, but said inspectors needed more time to compile an accurate picture. He added that his inspectors had so far failed to find "a smoking gun" demonstrating Iraqi noncompliance.
French President Jacques Chirac underlined his insistence on the need for explicit U.N. endorsement of the use of force against Iraq at a meeting with foreign ambassadors earlier this week. He told the diplomats that any decision on military action could only be taken by the Security Council "on a basis of a report from the inspectors." As a permanent member of the council -- along with the United States, Britain, China and Russia -- France is in a position to veto Security Council decisions.
Both U.S. officials and allied diplomats said the public signals from London and Paris urging Washington to give the inspectors more time have been reinforced in private conversations at all levels. In an interview this week, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said he was well aware of the domestic pressures on Blair, who has been accused by left-wing British newspaper commentators of being "Bush's poodle."
"My job as secretary of state . . . is to listen to our friends and see if we can find a way to accommodate the positions they bring to us," Powell said. "Prime Minister Blair and [British Foreign Secretary Jack] Straw are never shrinking violets when it comes to laying forth the position of her majesty's government. And we're trying to listen. To characterize Prime Minister Blair as a poodle is an absolutely absurd and silly charge."
As for the problem posed by the Turkish government's delay in approving the stationing of U.S. ground troops along the northern border of Iraq, Powell said, "The Turks are receptive to all the requests we've put before them in the sense that they have not yet said no to anything." He noted that a new Turkish parliament is dominated by a moderate Islamic party that has yet to fully sort out its policies toward the United States. According to polls, an overwhelming majority of Turks are opposed to joining a U.S.-led war against Iraq.
The Turkish leaders "are dealing with public opinion; they are dealing with a new government; they are dealing with a new parliament and a gentleman who is not yet quite prime minister," Powell said. "And so they have to move at their own pace."
Powell said that Turkish leaders had indicated to him that it would be easier to respond to the U.S. requests if there were an "international consensus" on dealing with Iraq, in the form of a second Security Council resolution. As the only NATO country bordering Iraq, Turkey is key to U.S. plans to a two-front war.
Turkish officials said they have agreed in principle to U.S. requests for overflight rights, and the use of Turkish seaports and air bases. But opening the country to tens of thousands of U.S. troops poses a more delicate problem, as the Turkish constitution requires parliamentary approval for the stationing of foreign troops.
Staff writer Glenn Kessler contributed to this report.