Wary White House Officials Warn That Iraq Is Still A Lethal Weapon

SUNDAY, NOV. 30, 1997

Despite appearances that the Iraq crisis has eased, the Clinton administration is cautioning that tensions are again on the increase and could still lead to armed conflict.

President Saddam Hussein’s latest diplomatic gambit inviting the world to inspect his rapidly expanding network of palaces for weapons of mass destruction, only to toughen his terms a day later, is sure to prolong the crisis, a top U.S. official said.

Whatever credit the Iraqi leader gained by his vague offer last week to major powers and other countries to send “house guests” to the palaces was negated when his foreign minister subsequently barred U.N. inspectors from the palaces and demanded an end to the mission in six months, the official told Newsday.

As a result, a 10-day-old Russian-led initiative to defuse the crisis diplomatically “appears to be unraveling,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Hussein “wants the sanctions lifted without fully complying, he wants an absolutely free hand,” said the aide, who plays a key role in managing the crisis. “We believe we have to deal with this by the same methods as before.” Those methods, he said, include diplomacy combined with threats of armed intervention. Threats of force have led Hussein to back down in the past, he said.

For President Clinton, who has sent two carrier battle groups into the Persian Gulf as well as dozens of advanced combat fighters and bombers, Hussein’s latest zigzag vindicates administration policy, which calls for maintaining U.N. economic sanctions until the Iraqi leader is ousted.

The administration now views the chances of Hussein backing down as next to nil. If he were to comply fully with U.N. demands that he destroy all weapons of mass destruction, “he would turn the world community’s attention to the question of sanctions,” the official said. But the official said expecting Hussein to fulfill the resolutions in view of his “unpredictable, mercurial” style was “starry-eyed.”

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