WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration expects some Arab countries to oppose any decision to launch a military strike against Iraq, but it wouldn't be deterred from using force so long as most allies agreed that such action was needed, a senior U.S. official said yesterday.
While the administration still prefers to rely on trade sanctions and diplomacy to pressure Iraqi troops into leaving Kuwait, the U.S.-led international alliance could choose the military option at any time without further provocation by Iraq, the U.S. official said.
But the official, speaking with a group of reporters on the condition of anonymity, added that "it is probably too soon" to decide whether to take offensive action because "the sanctions are working remarkably well."
"We clearly have that offensive option," he said. "Before we undertake it, we would obviously have to consult with others in order to make sure all hands are on deck."
But, the official added, "you don't necessarily give a veto to every single person who has voted for U.N. resolutions [and] you don't necessarily give a veto to every person who has contributed forces."
Meanwhile, Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met yesterday with Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf, to discuss in part whether more troops are needed beyond the more than 210,000 already in the region, Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams said.
"The question of whether the deployment is complete or not is one of the things that General Powell is evaluating while he's in Saudi Arabia," Mr. Williams said. General Powell, who returns here tomorrow, will confer with Defense Secretary Dick Cheney before any decision is made on whether to extend the military buildup, he said.
U.S. military officials assert that more forces would be needed to assure a successful military offensive against the 430,000 Iraqi troops and their well-fortified tanks and other defenses in and around Kuwait. But one military source familiar with General Powell's trip cautioned that these additional forces did not all have to be American; other nations fielding troops in the region may be asked to expand their numbers as well.
Discussing the chances of war in the gulf, the senior administration official said more time was needed to tell whether sanctions imposed by the United Nations, and the threat of war, would be enough to wear down Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's resolve to hold onto Kuwait. He insisted that no timetable existed for deciding whether to change tactics and consider using military force.
"Do I think further provocation is necessary to get the anti-Saddam coalition to consider using force?" the official asked. "No. It would clearly be much more straightforward if that happened, if tomorrow he were to attack Saudi Arabia.
"But even in the absence of that, I can imagine a scenario where we or conceivably others would take the initiative diplomatically and would say, 'The current approach isn't working,' " the official said. "Not everyone would necessarily agree."
The option of using military force is being discussed widely by the United States and its allies to help ensure there will be a consensus for any actual decision to strike against Iraq "short of a provocation," the senior official said. Contingency planning also has been under way, he said.
But, the official said, consultations have yielded no firm agreement so far.
"You can't get in advance, necessarily, a blank check or unconditional agreement" to use military force, he said. Asked if Arab support for an offensive remained an open question, the official said, "To some extent it is open."
"I can't tell you in the abstract that everyone is going to say, 'Great, [launch a military offensive] now.' Some might say, 'Great, but [do it] later.' "
The administration believes that all the allies have given "implicit" support for using military force as "the ultimate option to achieve your goals," the senior official said. "Now what you don't have is explicit commitments yet."
Referring to statements by Saudi Arabian leaders and other Arabs that appeared to stray from U.S. policy in the gulf, the official shrugged them off as "inevitable any time you have a coalition of so many states and so many individuals in authoritative positions.