Finding Support For A Fight Won’t Be Easy

The failure of United Nations diplomats to persuade Iraq on Friday to abandon its resistance to weapons inspections sets up a difficult challenge for the Clinton administration when the Security Council next meets.

Neither Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein nor President Clinton seems prepared to back down on a matter that has become equal parts pride and principle. That leaves Clinton’s foreign policy team scrambling to build a consensus for swift international action.

Bill Richardson, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, on Friday was careful to say that the Clinton administration will seek “incremental pressures” next week, a signal to reluctant U.S. allies that the administration prefers not to conduct unilateral military strikes.

Secretary of Defense William Cohen said, “Clearly some action has to be taken.” But he also said it is for the United Nations to decide whether to pursue greater economic sanctions or military action. The 15-nation Security Council is scheduled to meet Monday to hear a report on the failed diplomatic mission.

U-2 surveillance flights will resume Monday in defiance of an Iraqi pledge to shoot down the spy planes, Richard Butler, the chief of the U.N. weapons inspection program, announced Friday. Iraq’s deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, plans to fly to New York to press Iraq’s claims.

Asked Friday morning whether he sees any reason for hope, Clinton responded, “No, I don’t.”

“I think it is important that we be resolute,” Clinton said. “Keep in mind what is at stake here. The international community has made a decision, embodied in a United Nations resolution, that Saddam Hussein must not be permitted to resume producing weapons of mass destruction.”

Clinton is treading softly, aware that several countries on the Security Council - notably France, Russia and China - have said they have little stomach for military strikes.

Saddam has succeeded once again in rallying much international opinion against him, but how the U.N. will respond is a trickier question.

“What the United States wants to avoid is using military force before we’ve built diplomatic support for doing so,” said Richard Haass of the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. “It’s not going to be quick. I think it will take time and it will take some way stations.”

U.S. diplomats expect to begin building their case this weekend in New York, before the scheduled Sunday meeting between U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and three diplomats who left Baghdad without defusing the crisis.

Although the Americans would not discuss their tactics, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright - well-known for her tough words and actions during earlier periods of Iraqi intransigence - pledged “firm action to compel compliance.”

Haass described the administration’s dilemma: “One never wants to use military force unnecessarily. It’s expensive. It’s diplomatically trying, because it can cause loss of innocent life. On the other hand, one clearly doesn’t want to let Saddam Hussein get away with it.”

The goal of international action is to force Iraq to resume its compliance with a weapons inspection program dictated by the U.N. after Iraq’s 1991 defeat in the Gulf War. To prevent future Iraqi aggression, the world body required Iraq to destroy all chemical and biological weapons, as well as research and production facilities.

Monitoring and inspection by U.N. inspectors was a key part of the arrangement. But years of harassment and obstruction became a crisis on Oct. 27 when Iraq announced American inspectors on the U.N. team would be expelled. The Baghdad government also demanded a halt to U-2 surveillance flights over the country.

Iraq’s pique was prompted, according to Clinton administration officials, by U.N. inspectors’ discovery earlier this year of deadly VX nerve gas in Iraqi dumps. Iraq, which has denied producing large quantities of the gas, tried to conceal its nerve gas supplies from the inspectors, U.N. monitors told the Security Council in October.

Cohen said Friday that Iraq has the ability to “regenerate” its stockpiles of chemical weapons.

In an effort to find a compromise, Annan dispatched three diplomats to Baghdad. They departed Friday for Kuwait with nothing to show for their trip. They are due to meet Annan in New York Sunday.

“I could talk to you a little bit about the various comments of the Iraqis, but in terms of where we are, today is worse than yesterday,” said State Department spokesman James Rubin. He called Saddam “a dictator who has flouted the will of the international community over and over and over again…. Instead, they’ve hidden, they’ve dodged, they’ve weaved, they’ve lied.”

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