President Clinton and his top aides began Friday to prepare the nation for war in Iraq, and for the grim prospect of civilian casualties on the ground and the deaths of American pilots in an air war.
Clinton said he still hopes for a diplomatic solution, but stressed that “if there is military action over this matter in Iraq, it will be Saddam Hussein’s decision, not mine.”
Later, National Security Adviser Samuel Berger laid out the administration’s case against Iraq before a worldwide TV audience and explained the U.S. rationale for military action, if necessary.
The Middle East is “a region vital to our interests,” Berger said in a speech to the National Press Club here. “A stable Middle East means we can better protect free flow of oil, fight terrorism, and build support for a comprehensive and just Middle East peace. There is no greater challenge to the region’s stability and to America’s security in that region than Saddam’s reckless pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.”
Berger portrayed Saddam as uniquely evil, a dictator who repeatedly has used chemical weapons against his own people and others, and who would not hesitate to do so again. If Iraq does not let United Nations inspectors search for and destroy such weapons without restrictions, Berger made clear, U.S.-led forces will attack.
“Should such a mission prove necessary, its purpose will be clear: to deliver a serious blow that will significantly diminish Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction threat and his ability to threaten his neighbors,” Berger said.
Answering critics who say air strikes alone will be ineffective, Berger said: “We cannot destroy everything; we can have a real impact. … I am convinced that we will do significant harm.”
Moreover, the White House adviser warned that the first U.S. air campaign may not be the last. “We will be prepared to act again if we have evidence he (Saddam) is trying to rebuild his weapons of mass destruction capabilities. … I have full confidence in our ability to detect significant cheating.”
Berger vowed that the United States would pursue a diplomatic solution “until the end.” Asked how he would know when that moment had arrived, he replied: “We’ll know it. He may not.”
While Berger did not change previously stated U.S. policy, the coherence and visibility of his presentation ratcheted up the battle for world opinion. Within an hour of his remarks, Iraq’s deputy foreign minister, Riyahd al-Qaysi, appeared live on CNN to respond, and roundly rejected all U.S. charges.
“Nothing can be further from the truth,” Riyahd al-Qaysi said, in English, regarding the charge that Iraq still possesses weapons of mass destruction. He insisted that the Clinton administration is not really trying to enforce a U.N. mandate, but rather intends “to use military force per se for policy objectives of the United States.”
Next Wednesday, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Defense Secretary William Cohen and Berger will visit Ohio State University in Columbus to discuss the crisis. The purpose will be “to talk to the American people about the stakes in the Iraqi crisis and what would be the potential need to use military force if diplomacy fails,” said State Department spokesman James Rubin.
One sensitive point in the growing propaganda war is the danger an air strike would pose to innocent civilians. “We will do what we can to avoid civilian casualties,” Berger said, noting that Clinton has ordered military planners to minimize such risks.
At the same time, however, Berger noted that Saddam routinely places Iraqi civilians as human shields near military targets, and conceded that “it is impossible to rule out the potential for civilian casualties.”
Americans may die too, warned Army Gen. Henry Shelton, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in separate remarks to reporters.
“The truth is, war is a dirty thing. We will lose some people, and that weighs heavily,” Shelton said.
Iraq’s U.N. Ambassador, Nizar Hamdoon, announced in New York that U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan will send a team to Baghdad this weekend to survey eight presidential compounds that Saddam has ruled off-limits to inspectors. The inspectors will try to resolve disputes over those sites and will arrive Sunday, Hamdoon said.
Meanwhile, the threat of war is already heating up public opinion in the Arab world.
On Israel’s West Bank, Palestinians demonstrating in support of Iraq clashed Friday with Israeli soldiers, who fired tear gas and rubber bullets at stone-throwers, wounding three. Israeli troops also put down a protest by some 300 Palestinian supporters of Iraq on Thursday in the West Bank city of Hebron. And in Amman, Jordan, some 400 riot police used clubs and attack dogs to break up a pro-Iraq rally Friday.
Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai was quoted Friday as saying that Israel would ask Washington to delay any attack if Tel Aviv feels that its preparations against a potential retaliatory strike from Iraq are incomplete.
“There is no reason we shouldn’t be prepared. In any case, if we are not ready, we will ask the Americans to delay the action,” Mordechai told the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth.
Clinton displayed sensitivity to Russia’s ongoing objection to U.S. plans to use force against Iraq when asked during a White House photo session about Moscow’s reservations.
“This is a difficult thing for the Russians,” Clinton observed, citing a long relationship between the two countries. He shares Moscow’s desire for a diplomatic solution to the crisis, Clinton stressed, but said they differ over whether to resort to force.
“We don’t believe it’s acceptable, if diplomacy fails, to walk away,” Clinton said. “And our relationship with Russia is very important to us. But I don’t think you can have a United Nations set of resolutions about something this important to the future of the world and simply walk away if diplomacy fails. And so, that’s the rub.”
What if Russia says “nyet,” Clinton was asked.
“Nyet is not no for the United States under these circumstances,” the president replied.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: CRISIS OVER IRAQ Other developments Friday: All seven U.S. Roman Catholic cardinals and the president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops told President Clinton in a letter Friday a U.S. attack on Iraq would be “difficult if not impossible to justify.” “We write … to urge that instead of using the military option, you reinforce the diplomatic initiatives by widening the participation of other governments, especially Arab states, in the concerted effort to bring about Iraqi compliance on these issues,” the letter said. In Baghdad, Iraqis remembered the Feb. 13, 1991, U.S. missile attack that blasted a crowded bomb shelter and killed, by Iraqi count, 402 civilians. Egypt’s top Islamic cleric, Sheik Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, warned that Muslims would not tolerate a U.S.-British attack on Iraq, Egypt’s Middle East New Agency reported. Representatives from Lebanon, Sweden and the European Union, meeting in Lebanon, called Friday for a peaceful solution to the showdown. - From wire reports