The Clinton administration plunged ahead Monday with planning for possible military action against Iraq, receiving a cautious vote of support from congressional Republicans for using force against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
With hopes fading for the success of diplomatic pressure, U.S. and other Western officials say the Pentagon is planning various military options, including attacks on Saddam’s palaces, while U.S. diplomats seek at least tacit support internationally for a possible U.S.-British military operation sometime next month.
“We’re not talking about an ultimatum this week and military action next week,” said a senior European diplomat involved in the discussions. “There are a series of further steps that need to be taken first.”
To try to head off a possible U.S. attack, Russian President Boris Yeltsin sent Deputy Foreign Minister Viktor Posuvalyuk to Baghdad on Monday, seeking a resolution that will persuade Saddam to cooperate with United Nations weapons-inspection teams.
A statement announcing the mission by the Russian Foreign Ministry said, “All scenarios providing for the use of force are unacceptable and counterproductive.”
Negotiations between Iraq and Russia resulted in a short-lived agreement by Saddam to allow U.N. inspectors back into the country last fall. But Iraq has refused them access to many suspected weapons facilities, including eight sites controlled by Saddam, who has threatened to expel the entire U.N. operation unless it wraps up its work by May.
At a time when Republicans are hoping to take advantage of President Clinton’s legal and sexual imbroglio, House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., indicated that, on the issue of Iraq at least, the administration could expect broad support, although he avoided endorsing a military strike or mentioning Clinton by name.
“In matters of international relations, the United States is one nation,” Gingrich said. “It is very important for Saddam Saddam to understand that we will not accept his developing of weapons of mass destruction. We are prepared to be supportive of any steps for stopping that threat.”
Gingrich made his comments after a meeting on Iraq and other topics with Clinton’s national security adviser, Samuel “Sandy” Berger. Also attending was Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss.
The statement appeared to be an effort by Gingrich to quash speculation that Clinton’s legal difficulties would cause Republicans to desert him on foreign-policy issues. A more urgent concern for Clinton is that Republicans will criticize him for not hitting Saddam hard enough.
Some Republicans predict the administration will choose pinprick attacks on selected sites, rather than sustained and heavy bombing of Republican Guard units, presidential palaces, and suspected weapons sites.
Calling for “sufficient and sustained military operations” against Iraq, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said, “I will support (an attack) if I believe that it is of sufficient significance to make a difference.”
The White House, however, was weighing carefully how much damage to inflict on Iraq, not wanting to open the United States up to criticism that its efforts to compel Saddam to cooperate is adding to the suffering of the Iraqi people - a possibility that Saddam is sure to try to exploit.
Defense Secretary William Cohen has said that presidential palaces and other such sites would be likely targets for U.S. bombs. A senior Pentagon official said Monday, “The planning is very intensive” and that U.S. experts are developing an array of different targets.
The U.S. aircraft carrier Independence is expected to reach the Persian Gulf by Feb. 5 or 6, joining three other carriers already there, two American and one British. The USS Nimitz is expected to leave the Gulf, but it “could remain for a time,” the official said.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is expected to travel to Europe and possibly the Mideast, leaving later this week. One of her goals, officials said, is to persuade France and moderate Arab states to support - or at least not denounce - a U.S. strike.
Diplomatic sources say the U.S. and British objective is to maintain as much international unity as possible. It may be difficult to win the support of China, which, along with Russia, are the two permanent members of the Security Council most vocal about opposing military action, but the United States hopes to limit any criticism to those two countries, presenting a more or less unified front against Saddam.
“There’s a difference between acquiescing to military action and coming out in public against it, and we’re obviously hoping for more of the former,” said a Western diplomat.
At a news conference in New Delhi, French President Jacques Chirac declined to address whether his government would back a U.S. strike, emphasizing that Iraq must provide full access to U.N. inspectors.
Although they are losing patience with Saddam, French officials say they are not convinced that several days of bombing against Iraqi targets will induce Saddam to resume cooperation with U.N. weapons inspectors. Albright is scheduled to talk with French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine today. If the bombing doesn’t work, French officials ask, what is the next step?
“We are nearing the end of the diplomatic road unless Saddam changes his attitude,” said a French diplomat. “But there has always been the question that many people ask, ‘What happens after (use of force)?’ It’s a very difficult issue.”