January 26, 1998 in Nation/World

U.S., Britain Prepare Plans To Bomb Iraq Sex Scandal Complicates Options, Distracting Diplomats From Task

New York Times
 

The United States and Britain are laying plans for a three- or four-day bombing campaign of Iraqi targets as early as mid-February if Iraqi President Saddam Hussein continues to block the work of U.N. weapons inspectors, according to senior American officials and Western diplomats.

“We have entered the threat phase,” a senior American official said Sunday.

Since the latest crisis with Iraq began in November, when Saddam began blocking access for U.N. inspectors to suspected weapons sites, the weight of policy has been more toward using a military presence in the Persian Gulf to support diplomacy. But “the balance has definitely changed now,” said the official, who, like others willing to discuss the issue, spoke on condition of anonymity.

Diplomatic options are running out, he said, “and they now are designed to give Saddam a last chance to comply before he gets clobbered. It’s not like he hasn’t had his chances, and we want him to think hard.”

Another senior administration official complained Sunday that the members of the U.N. weapons inspection team, known as UNSCOM, still “are not in a position to do their jobs” in Iraq.

President Clinton’s national security team gathered at the White House on Saturday to discuss Iraq. But the sex scandal surrounding the president has complicated Washington’s options and has given close Western allies pause, diplomats and some American officials say.

“A week ago, everything was clear on Iraq,” said one senior diplomat from a NATO country. “Today, nobody really knows what’s going on - or even if Clinton will last.”

Another senior Western diplomat said: “I’m reminded of actors all going through their lines, and trying to ignore the earthquake under their feet. No one knows how serious it is or if the theater’s going to collapse, but while they’re talking, it’s all that anyone can think about.”

Saddam is hard to read at the best of times. But Clinton’s troubles have emboldened the Iraqi president, whose loyal deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, has become even less flexible than before in private conversations with diplomats, American officials and Western diplomats say.

While American officials insist vehemently in private that their planning process on Iraq has not been altered by Clinton’s political troubles, senior Western diplomats say the scandal has already had an impact on allied thinking.

A weakened Clinton will be more beholden to the Republican majority in Congress, these diplomats have told their home capitals.

Western diplomats say this perception will make it next to impossible for the United States to secure public Arab support for a limited American-British attack on Iraq.

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This sidebar appeared with the story:

TOUGH SELL

Diplomats say the perception that Clinton has been weakened by the Lewinsky sex scandal will make it next to impossible for the United States to secure public Arab support for a limited American-British attack on Iraq.

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