WASHINGTON -- The United States started building a sweeping case yesterday for a military attack on Iraq, saying a wide range of breaches of United Nations resolutions "cannot be allowed to stand."
Amid hints that President Saddam Hussein's defiance might be crumbling, the United States, Britain and France continued military discussions in advance of gaining broader endorsement for an ultimatum aimed at Iraq. President Bush canceled a planned weekend in Kennebunkport, Maine, to meet with his top national security advisers at 9 a.m. today at Camp David.
An armed strike, with all the uncertainty accompanying it, is fraught with political risks at a time when Mr. Bush's re-election campaign is foundering. But if he succeeds in winning a war of nerves with threats alone, he will have highlighted, temporarily, his greatest strength -- the calm command of a world crisis -- while drawing attention away from voters' domestic worries.
That prospect grew yesterday with signs that Iraq might be backing down. Its ambassador to the United Nations, Abdul Amir Al-Anbari, told reporters in New York he had the impression that a response from Baghdad to the latest U.N. proposal would be "very positive."
He said he expected an answer in less than 24 hours on whether weapons inspectors would be allowed into Iraq's Agriculture Ministry.
Earlier, Rolf Ekeus, head of the special commission set up to dismantle Iraq's chemical, biological and missile warfare apparatus, said he had made a new proposal to help Iraq out of the impasse without compromising the principle of free access by U.N. weapons inspectors. Most of the team left Iraq yesterday.
The Bush administration does not favor a surprise attack, and one official said that Washington and its allies still need to "make the case internationally" for military action.
That is why officials expect to see an ultimatum issued soon to Iraq, possibly under U.N. auspices, to make clear that the Baghdad government faces grave consequences if it continues to defy U.N. resolutions.
Pentagon officials said detailed military plans -- specifying what aircraft, ships and munitions to use and where they would go -- have not been drawn up because U.S. and allied objectives remain undecided.
In preparing domestic and world public opinion for possible air and missile attacks, Bush administration officials shifted their focus from the Baghdad standoff involving U.N. weapons inspectors that triggered the latest crisis.
Instead, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater cited "across-the-board defiance" by Iraq.
State Department spokesman Joe Snyder said the Baghdad regime continued to "starve" the Kurds in northern Iraq and was using attack jets and helicopters against Shiites in the southern marshes in violation of a U.N. resolution demanding that it stop repressing its population.
It also has boycotted a U.N. commission setting a new boundary with Kuwait and wouldn't accept its decision, refused to sell oil under U.N. supervision so that it could provide humanitarian aid for its people and increased harassment of various U.N. and humanitarian organization personnel, he said.
Some of these abuses have been known for some time. The new emphasis given them signaled that Iraq wouldn't be able to get off the hook simply by allowing weapons inspectors free access and would have to adjust its behavior drastically.
"All of these actions constitute a clear, systematic policy of defying the range of U.N. Security Council resolutions imposed upon Iraq since its invasion of Kuwait. These challenges to the U.N. and international community cannot be allowed to stand," said Mr. Snyder.
This statement, an echo of Mr. Bush's show of determination early in the Persian Gulf crisis of last year, coincided with the president's taking on an increasingly public role in the crisis. Previously, officials have made a point of deferring to the U.N.
The tactic offers a public reminder of the president's acclaimed performance after Iraq invaded Kuwait and during the buildup and war that followed.
It also provides a psychological weapon against President Hussein by showing that Mr. Bush won't shrink from leading an allied assault regardless of the political consequences. There is a suspicion here that Iraq's defiance grew out of its perception of Mr. Bush's political weakness.
Canceling a Kennebunkport trip also avoids news media coverage, grating to some Republican advisers, of Mr. Bush on the golf course.
Mary Matalin, the Bush campaign's political director, denied any political motivation for the cancellation. "The first time the Clinton pandering-plagiarists start saying this is political I'm going to blast their faces off," she said.
But while the Bush role has grown, officials see U.N. auspices as crucial to building international support for military action.