Iraq compliance to require sustained force, say officials Raids that tamed Baghdad in past won't work today

September 08, 1998|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Only sustained military force will make Saddam Hussein abandon his ambition to develop weapons of mass destruction, in the view of a growing number of U.S. officials in the administration and on Capitol Hill.

That forbidding prospect is at the heart of a struggle over Iraq policy being fought on two fronts -- between Iraq and the United Nations and between the Republican-controlled Congress and the White House.

For a month, Iraq has barred the United Nations from conducting inspections designed to uncover hidden chemical, biological and missile weapons programs and to prevent development of nuclear arms.

While the Security Council responds with words alone, Iraq's defiance has produced angry finger-pointing in Washington.

Republicans accuse the administration of allowing U.S. policy toward Iraq to collapse. Administration officials counter that certain Republican members showed scant enthusiasm for responding with force during the last Iraqi crisis in February.

The acrimony will likely continue this week, when Senate committees question Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and Defense Secretary William S. Cohen.

When Scott Ritter resigned as a U.N. weapons inspector and contended that Albright had blocked his aggressive inspections in Iraq, he turned a spotlight on a dangerous standoff that could allow Iraq eventually to resume threatening the Middle East with fearsome weapons.

"We are at a serious crisis point with Iraq," said Republican Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana. "No one appears to be quarterbacking a game plan in which intrusive inspections continue and produce results."

Albright and other administration officials insist that they haven't gone soft on Iraq: They say they plan to maintain tight economic sanctions against Iraq and are prepared to use force if necessary in the future -- but at a time of their choosing.

Avoided using force

But U.S. officials do acknowledge backing away from an earlier threat to respond militarily without hesitation if Iraq interfered with weapons inspections.

Explaining the shift, officials say the administration wanted to avoid being maneuvered into confrontations with Iraq that would require the United States to use force or to look weak by backing down.

"We could have been clearer," a senior official acknowledged.

The reasons for avoiding force were many, according to officials and Iraq experts outside government. The administration lacked support -- on the U.N. Security Council, among Persian Gulf states, on Capitol Hill and among the American public.

And, a senior official said, after the United States built up its forces in the Persian Gulf during February's crisis with Iraq, officials came to grips with the fact that bombing and missile strikes wouldn't be enough.

"You could blow up a building in 1991 or 1992" and get Iraq to pull back from confrontation, the official said. "Now, it may take a good deal more than that."

"There was a real risk in February and March that you would bomb and nothing would happen," he said.

Although this official said the administration had no intention of deploying ground troops, Sen. Joseph R. Biden, ranking

Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee and a close ally of the administration, says that nothing short of a replay of the 1991 gulf war is needed, with the aim of toppling Hussein's regime.

"As long as Saddam's at the helm, there is no reasonable prospect you or any other inspector is ever going to be able to guarantee that we have rooted out, root and branch, the entirety of Saddam's program relative to weapons of mass destruction," Biden said at a Senate hearing Thursday, looking directly at Ritter.

"The only way we're going to get rid of Saddam Hussein is we're going to end up having to start it alone -- start it alone -- and it's going to require guys like you in uniform to be back on foot in the desert taking Saddam down."

Lewinsky preoccupation

Although the White House denies that the Monica Lewinsky matter has had any effect on policy-making, a congressional ally says it has.

"The obvious problem of talking about any military action is that Clinton is preoccupied with scandal and people also would accuse him of doing it to distract attention from the scandal," said a Democratic staff member.

In addition, analysts cite a palpable fatigue after seven years of maintaining pressure on Iraq while failing to uncover all of Baghdad's weapons secrets.

bTC "Iraq is a no-winner for them," said Michael Eisenstadt, a military specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "It leads to endless friction with allies and no final resolution of the problem. And they have their hands full with domestic and other foreign-policy problems."

Though the administration's plight draws sympathy, its new stand undercuts its own previous tough posture.

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