WASHINGTON -- President Clinton took the first step to line up international support for possible military action against Iraq yesterday as United Nations efforts to disarm the Baghdad government appeared near collapse.
Clinton dispatched Defense Secretary William S. Cohen to Europe and the Persian Gulf to speak with allies about Iraq's latest act of defiance "and what we're prepared to do about it," a senior official said.
Saturday, Iraq halted the last vestiges of cooperation with U.N. arms inspectors seeking to install a sophisticated system intended to alert the world to signs that Iraq is trying to rebuild its arsenal of chemical and biological weapons and the missiles to deliver them.
If not reversed, Baghdad's decision will halt work by the the U.N. Special Commission (UNSCOM), the agency created at the end of the Persian Gulf war seven years ago to find and destroy Iraq's most dangerous weapons.
Cohen is expected to visit European and Persian Gulf allies, including Saudi Arabia.
"He's going to talk about our analysis of the situation and seek their analysis of the situation," said his spokesman, Kenneth Bacon.
"We think this is serious; we ought to work together to resolve it," Bacon said. He would not say whether Cohen is seeking commitments for military action but added, "We haven't ruled any option out."
In August, Iraq barred U.N. inspectors from beginning new inspections at suspected weapons sites, a step that curtailed the inspectors' effectiveness.
Iraq has maintained some cooperation with another disarmament agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is responsible for detecting any Iraqi move to build nuclear weapons.
The IAEA has set up a long-term system to keep watch on Iraq, but Baghdad said Saturday that the agency could conduct only nonintrusive monitoring and could not conduct spot inspections.
"Saddam Hussein's latest refusal to cooperate with the international weapons inspectors is completely unacceptable," Clinton said of the Iraqi leader during a political event at the White House. "Iraq must let the inspectors finish the job they started seven years ago, a job Iraq promised to let them do repeatedly."
The president predicted that Iraq's strategy "will backfire."
"Far from dividing the international community and achieving concessions it has only served to deepen the international community's resolve," he said.
Anger over sanctions
The immediate source of Hussein's anger was a letter from the U.N. Security Council warning that tough international economic sanctions would remain in force until Iraq complied with all U.N. resolutions.
The United Nations had promised to conduct a "comprehensive review" of Iraqi behavior. Baghdad hoped that would point the way to a lifting of the sanctions.
But the Security Council's letter, largely the work of the United States and Britain, avoided commitment to lifting sanctions unless Iraq complied with Security Council resolutions adopted over the past eight years. The resolutions concerned the weapons inspections and the return of Kuwaiti prisoners of war and Kuwaiti property seized after Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990.
Western diplomats said the letter dashed Iraqi hopes that the Security Council would ease up on its demands.
The last major U.S. military buildup in the Persian Gulf was in February, when Iraq refused to allow freedom of movement by U.N. weapons inspectors. Military strikes were averted at the 11th hour by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, who negotiated a memorandum of understanding with the Iraqi leadership.
"This is the unraveling" of the memorandum, said Terence Taylor, assistant director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. "Tough decisions need to be taken now in Washington and London."
Senior U.S. officials say the United States, having shown restraint last winter and in August, has rebuilt support for a strong stand against Iraq among countries that had been inclined to sympathize with Baghdad.
The officials say Arab governments, including the oil-rich gulf states protected by the United States, can no longer use a stalled Middle East peace process as an excuse for not supporting tough action against Iraq.
Two weeks ago, President Clinton was host to a nine-day summit on the Eastern Shore that resulted in a major interim accord between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat. The agreement got the peace process back on track.
The United States has 29,000 troops in the gulf area, along with 172 aircraft, the aircraft carrier USS Eisenhower and 20 other ships. Seven of the ships can launch cruise missiles.
Pub Date: 11/03/98