President Clinton warned Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein not to underestimate U.S. resolve to make him comply with weapons inspections, as U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan headed for Baghdad in hopes of averting a military confrontation.
“We hope the secretary-general’s mission will succeed. But let me be clear: If diplomacy fails, we must be - and we are - prepared to act,” Clinton said Thursday at the White House. “The choice is Saddam Hussein’s. We hope he will accept the mandate of the world community. … If not, he must bear the responsibility for the consequences.”
The president also commented on the raucous “town hall meeting” Wednesday in Ohio that reflected public anxiety about the prospect of war against Iraq. Clinton said Saddam should not take comfort in some anti-war views expressed during the televised event “if he understands the first thing about America.”
Describing the exchanges between the crowd at Ohio State University in Columbus and his top national security advisers as “a good old-fashioned American debate,” Clinton said he believes most Americans will rally behind the use of force if Annan fails to persuade Saddam to allow U.N. inspectors unconditional access to suspected chemical and biological weapons’ sites.
“I think an overwhelming majority of Americans also want a peaceful resolution of this. But if it’s necessary for us to act, I believe America will do what it always does - I believe it will unite just as it did in 1991,” Clinton told reporters before departing for Democratic Party fund-raising stops.
On his arrival in Baltimore, Clinton was met outside the Harbor Court Hotel by about 30 demonstrators holding banners protesting U.S. policy toward Iraq and chanting, “Bombs kill children - we say no.” One large banner read, “We Don’t Want Your Bloody War.”
Clinton said he spoke with French President Jacques Chirac on Thursday and that he and Chirac view Annan’s mission to Baghdad as “a critical opportunity to achieve the outcome that all of us would prefer - a peaceful and principled end to this crisis.”
Annan, during a stopover in Paris for a meeting with the French leader, said that he remains optimistic that the standoff can be resolved.
Annan’s trip has the blessing of the 15-nation U.N. Security Council, including its five permanent members - Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States. But Clinton’s hard-line policy against allowing Saddam to renegotiate or subvert U.N. resolutions ending the 1991 Persian Gulf War is expected to be the message that Annan delivers to Saddam this weekend.
Annan is scheduled to arrive today in Baghdad.
While offering strong public support for the mission, Clinton reiterated the U.S. position that Saddam “must give the weapons inspectors full, free, unfettered access to all suspected sites anywhere in Iraq.” He added that Saddam had agreed to do just that as a condition of ending the Gulf war.
“He simply must adhere to that standard,” Clinton said, leaving Annan little room for negotiation.
Although Clinton said he has not set a deadline for military strikes should the Annan mission fail, he has asked Vice President Al Gore to postpone a trip to South Africa next week. The Pentagon also announced that Defense Secretary William Cohen would cancel travel plans.
“In the coming days I want my full national security team on hand to take part in our deliberations and decisions on this vital, important issue,” Clinton said.
As the president spoke, Secretary State of Madeleine Albright continued her search for public support at stops in Tennessee and South Carolina, where she spoke of the U.S. leadership role in trying to enforce U.N. mandates against Iraq.
“It clearly is a very, very important time … when we want to see how many (U.N.) countries back their votes up (in favor of mandates),” she said at one stop. “The United States can never turn its back on the international rules. … If we do our job, others will see that that is the way to go.”
As part of the preparations for a possible attack, Clinton taped a radio message to be beamed “at the appropriate time,” as one administration official put it, into Iraq and other Arab nations.
The message blames Saddam for the U.N. sanctions and portrays the United States as the architect of the “food-for-oil program” that has allowed the sale of Iraqi oil to pay for humanitarian assistance.
In Kuwait, several hundred more U.S. troops will take up defensive positions along the Iraqi border.
MEMO: Changed from Idaho edition.