WASHINGTON -- Any decision to go to war with Iraq must be accompanied by a public understanding that the action is being taken reluctantly -- that, in effect, "the decision to use force was forced upon us," a senior administration official said yesterday.
The United States would also act "in concert with other nations," Arab and non-Arab, although it may not seek additional, explicit authority from the United Nations, the official said.
When the president says his patience is running out, as he did Tuesday, "it's because he sees no evidence that Iraqi behavior is changing," the official said.
But the official also said that, in several ways, time works in the United States' favor, adding that in measuring the effect of sanctions on Iraq, one has to look not merely at food supplies but also at other goods, the psychological effect the sanctions are having and their impact on Iraq's military posture.
The official, who is close to top decision-makers, shed important light during an interview with several reporters on the factors to be weighed in future U.S. actions against Iraq.
In another Mideast development yesterday, officials said the United States would support a mission dispatched by the United Nations secretary-general to the territories occupied by Israel that goes well beyond a probe of Monday's killings on the Temple Mount to examine what might be done "to enhance the safety and protection of Palestinian civilians living" in the territories.
The proposed mission would be described in a resolution condemning "excessive" force by Israeli authorities in the deaths of 19 Palestinians.
As negotiations over the wording of the resolution resumed yesterday, following an impasse earlier in the day, non-aligned countries allied with the Palestine Liberation Organization continued to press for more specificity in the secretary-general's mission to the occupied territories, requiring him to report his conclusions and recommendations on protection of both Palestinians and Jerusalem's holy sites.
The two sides remained at odds as well over U.S. insistence on acknowledging violence committed by both Israelis and Palestinians.
The PLO had been seen as trying to maneuver for a U.S. veto that would undermine the Western and Arab coalition arrayed against Iraq.
But U.S. officials were trying to persuade the non-aligned states, and through them the PLO, that the proposed resolution represented a notable U.S. policy stand.
It may well be the first time, officials noted, that a U.S.-backed resolution contained a condemnation of Israel, called for a mission to the region and labeled Israel an occupying power.
The resolution was described as reflecting U.S. anger and total frustration over Israeli actions.
The Security Council was expected to meet informally today on the resolution, although officials could not predict when a vote would be held.
The resolution is widely seen as crucial in blocking Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from linking his occupation of Kuwait with the plight of Palestinians in the occupied territories and turning the Persian Gulf crisis into an Arab-Israeli struggle.
Meanwhile yesterday, the State Department said that Iraqi authorities apparently have ruled that no American men 55 years and older will be allowed to leave Iraqi-controlled territory.
Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler also assailed what she described as "outrageous" Iraqi harassment and interrogation of Americans and foreign-born family members who left Iraq Wednesday aboard a U.S.-chartered evacuation flight.
Some evacuees said they were threatened with weapons. A dozen people who signed up for the flight were prevented from leaving, she said.
The plane, with 321 American and Canadian evacuees, landed in London yesterday and was to arrive in Raleigh, N.C., today.
In describing the factors leading up to any decision to use military force against Iraq, the senior administration official said, "if we do have to use military force, it's important that people in this country and in the Arab world, indeed everywhere, see that it's something we elected to do reluctantly, that it was, if you will, 'The decision to use force was forced upon us.' "
He also took issue with the argument that time necessarily plays into Mr. Hussein's hands.
"How time plays is complicated," he said. "In some ways, time works against us. In the rape of Kuwait, time is obviously a bad thing. Time allows Saddam to dig in, militarily; it allows him to develop unconventional weapons. . . .
"On the other hand, time allows us and our allies to prepare militarily, and it allows sanctions to do their thing, which is important . . . because sanctions may work, despite what the naysayers say.
"I think people who measure sanctions measure them too narrowly," the official said.