Sounding like warriors on the eve of battle, President Clinton and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein geared up for a military confrontation as neither man signaled on Sunday a readiness to back down in the dispute over United Nations weapons inspectors.
The crisis is expected to come to a head today on two fronts: American U-2 spy planes, operated on behalf of the United Nations, flew over Iraq despite warnings Iraqi anti-aircraft guns would shoot at them, and Iraq’s deputy prime minister will appear before the U.N. to present his country’s case.
For the seventh consecutive day Sunday, Iraq refused to allow American members of U.N. arms inspection teams to enter Iraqi sites. The U.N. teams refused to work without the Americans, whom the Iraqis call spies.
In Baghdad, Hussein met air force and air defense commanders and then was quoted as telling his top political and military advisers: “Iraq has been put in a situation in which it has to chose between sacrifice and slavery.”
Iraq’s air defense system was put on alert Sunday, and the Iraqi News Agency quoted Hussein as saying, “Our decision is defensive, not an attack on America.”
In Washington, Clinton called on the United Nations to “take a very strong and unambiguous action” against Iraq for refusing to allow American members of U.N. teams to carry out weapon inspections.
Asked on NBC’s “Meet the Press” whether he would order a military response if Iraq fired on the U-2 plane today, Clinton said:
“We will not tolerate his efforts to murder our pilots acting on behalf of the United Nations. … I think that Saddam Hussein realizes this is serious business.”
Rhetoric from both sides heated noticeably Sunday. For some Clinton administration officials, there was barely concealed venom. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, a noted Hussein adversary during her stint as U.N. ambassador for the United States, called Hussein a “congenital liar.”
Iraqi newspapers fired back. Some sharply criticized the chief U.N. arms inspector, Richard Butler.
“Butler is deliberately working to blow up a hot crisis … through provoking Iraq and ordering U-2 planes to fly … allowing America to commit a new aggression,” said the government newspaper al-Jumhouriya.
Political analysts said unless the United Nations further suspends the U-2 reconnaissance flights and the U.N. begins talking about ending nearly seven years of economic sanctions against Iraq, it appeared a military fight was inevitable.
Radwan Abdullah, a prominent Jordanian political theorist, said Sunday that Iraq gave no signs of backing down.
“There are many reasons for this, but No. 1 is they are fed up,” Abdullah said. “They see no end in sight to the sanctions. They have no incentive to back down, no rewards for their cooperation. I think Saddam Hussein also probably wants to score some points domestically and in the Arab world … and I think he also would like to split the Gulf War coalition.”
The American-led coalition for the 1991 war included nearly the entire Arab world that united against Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. The allied military operation had cemented the United States’ strategic military and economic position in the Middle East.
But during the last three years, the Americans’ standing in the Arab world has slipped dramatically for a number of reasons, chief among them the failing Middle East peace process and the Americans’ perceived bias toward Israel.
United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, who was to meet Sunday night with a three-member U.N. team that visited Baghdad last week, told CNN that Iraq now must allow American inspectors to continue their work. Seven U.S. inspectors remain in Baghdad.
If Iraq shoots at U-2 planes, “no one can doubt there would be a reaction,” Annan said. But the world’s top diplomat hinted if Iraq followed the U.N. resolutions, the Security Council may take up discussion about the life of the sanctions and the future of the weapons inspection program.
The U-2 planes, based in Saudi Arabia and flown by a single unarmed crewman, take detailed pictures of objects on Earth from as high as 70,000 feet. They have been used by the U.S. military for 40 years.Clinton said the continued U.N. oversight was necessary - because of Hussein’s record of using deadly biological and chemical weapons.
“There is a United Nations resolution that says he has to permit inspectors to look into what he’s doing to make sure he doesn’t again develop a capacity to make and deploy weapons of mass destruction,” Clinton said.
xxxx U-2 flies An American U-2 surveillance plane entered Iraqi air space at 8:21 a.m. (9:21 p.m. PST) from a base in Saudi Arabia, but the Iraqi military said the aircraft flew outside the range of anti aircraft gunners. “But these units are ready for action,” the statement said.