WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration is continuing to weigh strong military action against Iraq despite an agreement Sunday that ended the latest confrontation over weapons inspectors, officials said yesterday.
The U.S. military moved to put more ships and troops within striking distance of Iraq by dispatching another aircraft carrier battle group, equipped with Tomahawk cruise missiles and about 85 warplanes, to the eastern Mediterranean and a Patriot air defense missile battery and 120 artillerymen to Kuwait.
A senior administration official acknowledged that despite President Bush's assertion that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had "caved in" and "cratered," the result could not be seen as a victory for the United States and its coalition partners.
"I don't think anyone won; nobody lost. It just fizzled. It simply went away," this official said.
The issue the United States still must confront, the official said, is: "Has it come to a time when we have to put him seriously back in his box?"
This question was expected to be raised last night when President Bush met with his top national security advisers, including Secretary of State James A. Baker III, who was traveling as the most recent crisis built. Mr. Baker was expected to be able to give the group a firsthand account of the views of top Arab leaders.
"It was not a decision-making meeting," an administration official said afterward.
The latest showdown with Iraq increases the burden on the United States and its allies to show they are serious about enforcing United Nations resolutions.
While yielding to the threat of new bomb and missile attacks to allow U.N. weapons inspectors into the agricultural ministry, Iraq showed that inspections could be subject to negotiation and extracted a compromise that could undermine the inspections process.
The head of the United Nations' weapons-inspection % 5/8 commission, Rolf Ekeus, agreed that the team that actually went inside the ministry would not include citizens of countries that fought in the Persian Gulf war.
Iraq trumpeted the deal as a victory for its "sovereignty," and critics saw it as strikingly similar to a July 19 Iraqi proposal, rejected by the United Nations, calling for "neutral" inspectors.
The three-week standoff -- and in particular the harassment that forced the withdrawal of the inspectors -- gave Iraq time to destroy or move hidden documents and equipment, such as refrigerators containing biological-warfare material.
Inspectors will now look for electrical wiring and other evidence that equipment had been moved, a Western diplomat said yesterday.
The strong likelihood that most evidence had disappeared from the ministry weakened the argument for the United States to reject the final deal and perhaps use military force to get a better one, the senior U.S. official said.
At the end, the official said, the crisis became solely one of principle: the right of U.N. inspectors to go where they pleased.
Dispatching military force solely to uphold a principle "would have been a hard sell -- practicality took over more than anything."
But despite Mr. Hussein's successful stalling tactics, there remain serious factual grounds for military action if the United States chooses it, this official argued: "There are still concrete objects that we can confront if we choose."
Future inspections may provide further grounds. Diplomats say the special commission will continue to pursue intelligence reports that Iraq is hiding evidence of programs of weapons of mass destruction.
The commission wants to reassert its right to send in teams that include Americans, British and French, the key members of the anti-Iraq coalition, a Western diplomat said.
In addition, President Bush and top administration officials have committed themselves rhetorically to a program of continued pressure on Iraq to ensure that it begins to comply with a whole range of U.N. resolutions it is flouting.
Among the most serious violations are Iraq's oppression of Shiites, under attack by Iraqi planes in the southern marshes, and Kurds in the north, suffering for months from an Iraqi-imposed embargo.
This commitment will deepen later this week when Secretary Baker meets with leaders of a coalition of Iraqi opposition groups, including Kurds and Shiites.
Laurie Mylroie, an associate with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that if the current buildup signals a turning point toward a more aggressive American policy toward Iraq, the compromise over inspection of the Agriculture Ministry won't matter.
"But if it doesn't happen, Saddam will have shown Bush up," she said.
The USS John F. Kennedy cut short a five-day port call to the Virgin Islands for deployment to the Mediterranean even though the USS Saratoga has not completed a six-month tour of duty there, said a senior military official.
The Saratoga was dispatched last week to the Adriatic Sea for possible missions related to the crisis in the former Yugoslavian republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina.