WASHINGTON -- The United States, Britain and France, facing continued Iraqi defiance, wrestled behind the scenes yesterday with the troublesome questions of what military action would be effective and how to deliver a credible warning.
The three countries agree on the potential need for military action to force Iraqi compliance with United Nations Security Council resolutions and particularly to wreck Iraq's ability to threaten the region with weapons of mass destruction.
The tough part is translating that strategic objective into a military plan.
"The question of what you accomplish [by using military force] is the key thing you have to start with before you choose options," one Bush administration official said. "That's the issue people are wrestling with."
A group of high-level officials failed to resolve it at a White House meeting Wednesday. President Bush reviewed options yesterday at a lunch with most of his top national security advisers, but no decisions were disclosed.
The crisis heightened Wednesday when mounting harassment and an attempted stabbing forced a team of U.N. inspectors to retreat from their vigil outside the Agriculture Ministry in Baghdad, where Iraqis had barred them from entering.
The harassment also has been directed at relief personnel from the U.N. and private agencies who have been barred from renewing visas and getting permits to move around the country.
Yesterday, Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services disclosed that it was withdrawing its team, which has been supplying food and medicine to more than 200,000 needy Iraqis.
In Baghdad, Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz vowed that Iraq would not bow to threats.
"Whatever the Security Council does won't change the position of Iraq," Mr. Aziz said. "We are not going to compromise on our principles. Iraq will never compromise its sovereignty."
The Pentagon moved more ships and personnel near Iraq yesterday, including a guided missile cruiser that entered the Red Sea from its station in the Mediterranean and a Marine amphibious unit aboard four ships that returned to the Persian Gulf after almost a three-month hiatus. Nearly three dozen additional Air Force personnel also arrived in the region.
The battle group of the carrier Saratoga canceled a port call to Greece, but officials said this was linked to the Yugoslavian situation.
Officials stressed that the movements were not a prelude to an imminent attack and noted that the addition of about 4,100 sailors, Marines and airmen yesterday brought the total number of U.S. military personnel in the region to 21,174.
Military planners have ruled out use of ground troops, officials say, leaving air power and missiles.
"Obviously, we want to get it right. We're not interested in feel-good attacks," said a European diplomat familiar with military thinking.
To make the punishment fit the crime, the three powers could target bombs and missiles at sites connected with weapons of mass destruction, the diplomat said. Possibilities include a single strike at one site as a demonstration of allied resolve, an escalating series of attacks or one major assault.
Officials stress that Iraq will be given ample opportunity to back down.
Diplomats suggest that this might be followed by warnings and an ultimatum for Iraq to comply with U.N. resolutions by a certain date or face the consequences.
More formal Security Council action is problematic. The three countries have won tacit agreement that no additional U.N. authority is needed for a military strike. If a resolution or authorizing force were proposed, this tacit consensus could break down in bickering over deadlines and language, diplomats say.
But international and domestic politics may require formal U.N. action. Mr. Bush, facing a tough re-election battle with the luster of last year's Operation Desert Storm victory fading, needs all the signs of multilateral authority he can muster.
His Democratic opponent, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, stressed a U.N. role in a statement yesterday:
"Let there be no mistake: If the United Nations decides to use force to ensure Iraqi compliance with the cease-fire agreements, I will support American participation in such action."