While making clear it believes Iraq has already violated last November's U.N. Security Council resolution, the Bush administration will acquiesce to continued U.N. inspections there, at least for the next several weeks, according to U.S. and diplomatic sources.
There is no expectation that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein will decide to cooperate more fully with weapons inspectors, and the administration is unlikely to announce any formal retreat as it strives to keep the pressure on Baghdad, sources said. But requests from Britain, the need to build more public and political support at home and abroad, and a military schedule that is a month or more away from full deployment have combined to temper thoughts of attempting an earlier inspection cutoff.
"Events will drive the timetable," one administration official said. Beginning with the inspectors' report to the council on Iraqi cooperation Monday, followed by a subsequent, less formal report now scheduled for Feb. 14, British and U.S. officials believe it will become increasingly apparent to a council majority that, even without the discovery of an Iraqi "smoking gun," continued inspections will serve no useful disarmament purpose.
Allowing the inspections to go on does not constitute a policy change, the official said. It is "extending something that has never been limited. We never said we would cut off inspections on Jan. 27. . . . We also have never shown any interest in allowing them to go on for four or five months."
But the decision not to contest their continuation, perhaps extending to March, is a sign that the administration is not yet prepared to go to war, and recognizes the need to be seen as listening to domestic opinion and its council colleagues.
France, Russia and China, three of the council's permanent, veto-bearing members, have said a new council resolution is necessary before military force can be used; all three have said they see no need for it while inspections are proceeding. Although the United States is less convinced than Britain that a new council resolution authorizing force is either achievable or necessary, it has agreed to keep the door open to a council consensus for now.
The administration and Britain, its closest ally on Iraq, have been in discussions this week that will continue Friday when Prime Minister Tony Blair is to meet with President Bush at Camp David. Britain, sources said, believes that this week's public announcement that it will deploy 30,000 troops to the Persian Gulf region has been a "tangible sign" of its commitment to a military attack if it becomes necessary.
In exchange, "Blair wants to be sure that if we go to war we do so in the most favorable circumstances possible. Not just military, but political," a diplomatic source said. The British position is that "if you get a second [Security Council] resolution, all kinds of things become easier -- domestic politics, the international situation, more willing partners and the aftermath" of an attack. The time frame for military deployments, he said, provides "room for maneuver, and the slack can be taken up in continuing to build the case. . . . We don't have to be impatient right now."
A variety of administration and council sources outlined several possible scenarios in coming weeks. The reports on Iraqi cooperation to be presented Monday by Hans Blix of the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), and Mohamed ElBaradei of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), will range from "light gray to dark gray, but will not be black," as one council diplomat put it. ElBaradei, an IAEA spokesman said yesterday, will say the Iraqis have been generally cooperative in the inspectors' search for signs of a nuclear weapons program, responding to requests for information but not volunteering anything.
Blix's assessment will be more negative, U.N. sources said, but will provide ammunition for both sides of a wide council divide. UNMOVIC, which is charged with verifying Iraqi claims that it has no chemical or biological weapons, has been given relatively free access to inspection sites. But Blix is increasingly frustrated with Baghdad's refusal to allow high-altitude reconnaissance flights by U-2 aircraft and to facilitate private interviews with Iraqi weapons scientists -- both of which it is required to do under the November resolution that paved the way for the inspections.
In the closed-door debate that follows, sources said, the United States and Britain will likely say it is clear to them that Iraq is already in "material breach" of council demands. They will tacitly acknowledge, however, that a majority of members, including France, Russia and Germany, want more time and information to come to their own conclusions.
But as inspectors work from an increasingly specific list of questions for Baghdad -- including demands that it account for vast stores of chemical weapons stocks known to exist when the last round of inspections ended in 1998 -- Iraq's refusal to cooperate will become increasingly difficult to accept. "A huge amount depends on the tone set by the inspectors," a senior diplomat said. "If they start to complain, as they have already, about U-2s, scientists and all that, you have a good chance of wearing down the opposition."
France, whose council veto has made it the most powerful force opposing military action, is the primary target of these efforts. The United States and Britain hope the French will either become increasingly isolated or, more desirably, will feel that the extra weeks of unsuccessful inspections have sufficiently mollified domestic opposition and given it sufficient political cover to give up the fight. The diplomatic calculation is that neither Russia nor China will threaten a veto on its own.
Even if a new resolution authorizing military action is not possible, British and U.S. officials believe their demonstration of patience and good faith provides a good chance of accumulating at least nine of the council's 15 votes. A permanent member could still veto a resolution, but the others -- including nonpermanent members from Latin America, Africa and Asia -- are considered more malleable to U.S. demands. Even if no vote were held, agreement by an absolute council majority would open the door to what diplomats refer to as a "Kosovo solution," a reference to NATO's war against Serbia in 1999. Although the Security Council had three times recognized Serbia's actions in Kosovo as a threat to international security, Russia said it would veto any council resolution to use force. NATO then decided to declare the situation an emergency and act without explicit council authorization, but in the knowledge that most members supported military intervention.
These scenarios assume that Hussein continues to "screw this up, and everyone recognizes he's a liar and a cheat," a senior administration official said this week. Two other possible outcomes, both possible but unlikely, he said, are "Saddam leaves the country, and we don't have to worry about it," or "Saddam does what he is supposed to do and increases his level of cooperation."
But there is still a strong possibility, the official said, that "there's continuing ambiguity. Then a very hard decision will have to be made by the president of the United States."