WASHINGTON -- The United States issued new military warnings to Iraq yesterday after an attempted stabbing and mounting harassment forced United Nations weapons inspectors to retreat from their vigil outside the Agriculture Ministry in Baghdad.
"We are not ruling out any option, including the use of military force," said White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater. He said the current showdown with Iraq "is about as serious as any we've faced."
The forced retreat of the U.N. inspectors means "Saddam has won a round, so to speak," a senior U.S. official said, referring to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Iraq's defiance amounts to a refusal to comply with the U.N. resolution setting the terms of last year's cease-fire in the Persian Gulf war, the official said. "It leads ultimately to force if he doesn't back down."
Mr. Fitzwater said that the purpose of military action, should it be used, would be to force compliance with U.N. resolutions "and to impress upon Iraq that they pay a penalty, and a serious penalty, for not allowing the inspections."
A knowledgeable senior military officer said that the Pentagon was taking "very seriously" the cues from the White House about possible strikes against Iraq, but that he believed none would be ordered until Secretary of State James A. Baker III ends his current Middle East mission and leaves the region.
"I think the administration is dead serious about this," he said.
The officer said that military planners have been reviewing the same range of options they readied for the White House last September, when Baghdad's refusal to cooperate with U.N. inspection teams prompted talk about renewed air attacks.
Those options, which include strikes by aircraft and Tomahawk missiles against weapons-production facilities and other strategic targets, "have not changed," he said.
"There's always been a range of options for the president to choose," from limited missile attacks against a few selected targets to massive bombing raids, he said. "We have many capabilities."
Consultations about possible action are going on with Britain and France.
The renewed confrontation with Iraq comes at a difficult time for the Bush administration, which is being forced on the defensive by Democratic charges that it helped build up Mr. Hussein's menacing military strength and ignored his weapons of mass destruction.
It also comes in the midst of a presidential campaign in which Mr. Bush is trailing badly in the polls. Any use of force could well open the president to criticism that he is risking American lives to boost his re-election chances.
The standoff began July 5 when a team of U.N. weapons inspectors, in parked vehicles, began their vigil after Iraqi officials barred them from entering the Agriculture Ministry. Officials say the ministry may contain equipment used in biological warfare programs and documents related to Iraq's ballistic missile program.
The team came under mounting harassment as rock-throwing incidents, vandalism and officially sponsored demonstrations grew in intensity, officials say.
Yesterday morning, an inspector sitting in a car outside the building was attacked by a man who attempted to stab him with a skewer, according to Rolf Ekeus, head of the U.N. special commission set up to track down and destroy Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.
"Astonishingly, the Iraqi security first allowed the man to approach the vehicle, stood by when the attack occurred, only intervened after the inspector had managed to defend himself, and then let the attacker walk freely away," Mr. Ekeus' statement said.
The chief inspector "decided under the circumstances" to remove the team from the area, Mr. Ekeus said. The members returned to their hotel.
Voicing outrage, Edward Perkins, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said last night, "We hold Iraq directly responsible for assuring the safety and security of [commission] inspectors."
U.N. diplomats say that no additional resolution is needed to authorize force by members of the U.S.-led coalition that defeated Iraq last year and that Security Council member countries, by not objecting, have given tacit approval.
The United States and its allies fear that if the United Nations surrenders the principle that its inspectors can make surprise inspections wherever they want, Iraq could rebuild its stockpile of weapons of mass destruction.
"Clearly Iraq's record during the war established that it was prepared to be ruthless and irresponsible in its use of weaponry," a U.S. official said.
No move has been made to withdraw the inspectors from Iraq altogether. Nor is the United Nations withdrawing its hundreds of humanitarian personnel and guards, who also have come under sporadic attack.
A U.S. official, referring to precision "smart" weapons capable of minimizing civilian casualties, said that the continued presence of U.N. personnel would not necessarily bar some kind of military action.
The United States has about 150 warplanes in Saudi Arabia; at least 40 combat aircraft in Turkey; 13 ships in the Persian Gulf, Gulf of Oman and the northern Arabian Sea; and five ships in the Red Sea. The Pentagon said yesterday that 17,015 U.S. military personnel are in the region.