Iraq gets warning against trying to terrorize world

President being urged to target Hussein next

War On Terrorism

November 27, 2001|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush accused Saddam Hussein yesterday of seeking to "terrorize the world" with weapons of mass destruction and warned that "he'll find out" what will happen if Iraq continues to obstruct United Nations weapons inspectors.

Bush's warning was the sharpest by any administration official toward Iraq in recent weeks and reflected concern about the Baghdad regime's suspected development of biological, chemical and possibly nuclear weapons. Senior administration officials cautioned, however, that Bush was not implying that the United States plans any imminent military action against Iraq.

The president has come under pressure from hard-liners within and outside the administration to make Iraq the next target of his war on terrorism after the al-Qaida network is crushed in Afghanistan.

So far, moderates, led by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, have persuaded the president to put off preparing such action. But Bush's comments yesterday signaled that he regards Iraq as potentially as serious a threat to the United States and its interests as Osama bin Laden's terrorist network.

For the first time, the president described Iraq's drive to develop weapons of mass destruction as a form of terrorism.

Asked by reporters what message he would send to Iraq, Bush replied: "My message is, if you harbor a terrorist, you're a terrorist. If you feed a terrorist, you're a terrorist. If you develop weapons of mass destruction that you want to [use to] terrorize the world, you'll be held accountable."

He demanded that Hussein let U.N. weapons inspectors back into Iraq, which expelled them in late 1998. Asked what would happen if Hussein refused, Bush replied: "That's up for - he'll find out."

But the president signaled yesterday that the destruction of al-Qaida remains his priority.

"We're going to make sure that we accomplish each mission that we tackle. First things first."

Bush's spokesman, Ari Fleischer, insisted later that Bush had broken no new ground in his comments and that he has always warned of the dangers of weapons proliferation by Iraq and other nations, such as North Korea.

"I think the president's focus is on Afghanistan" and on destroying al-Qaida, Fleischer said. Asked about the threat to Iraq, he added, "The president has left it in that undefined way, and I think that's the appropriate place to leave it."

A senior administration official sought to dispel speculation about an attack on Iraq.

"The only reason Iraq is in the news is that [reporters] are asking about it," the official said. "Our concerns about Iraq are well known." These concerns will be dealt with "at an hour and in a manner of our choosing."

Bush's warning to Iraq coincided with an American diplomatic push at the United Nations to increase pressure on Iraq to grant access to the arms inspectors.

The United States, France and Britain are trying to win U.N. Security Council approval of a new regime of sanctions against Iraq that they hope would be more effective than those applied in the past.

So far, the plan has been blocked by Russia, which wields a veto as one of five permanent members of the Security Council.

The current sanctions are to expire Friday.

The improved U.S.-Russian relationship on display during President Bush's recent summit with President Vladimir V. Putin hasn't altered Moscow's stance on Iraq, officials said yesterday. Powell spoke by phone over the weekend and yesterday with Russia's foreign minister, Igor Ivanov, without apparent success.

The new proposed measures, called "smart sanctions," would bar Iraqi imports of any military equipment or material that could be used to develop nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. At the same time, they would allow most other imports, thus easing the effect of sanctions on Iraqi civilians.

The United States and its allies have come under harsh criticism from Muslim and Arab nations because of the suffering of ordinary Iraqis, something the Baghdad regime has invoked in its propaganda against the West.

Washington maintains the suffering is Baghdad's fault because Iraq refuses to carry out its disarmament pledges and because it has misspent funds it has received.

Iraq has rejected the new sanctions approach. It has instead demanded a total lifting of the sanctions, which were imposed after it invaded Kuwait in 1990. Officials say that if no agreement is reached with Russia on the new plan, the existing sanctions would be extended, probably for three months.

After weapons inspectors were expelled in 1998, U.N. officials continued to receive reports that Iraq was proceeding to develop germ-warfare agents and the missiles needed to carry them, according to Charles Duelfer, a former No. 2 official of the U.N. inspection agency.

At a conference in Europe last week, the State Department's top arms-control official, John Bolton, raised the fear that Iraq had used the period since 1998 to expand its dangerous weapons programs.

"In the absence of our ability to find out exactly what they're doing, we can certainly presume from their past conduct, which has included the use of chemical weapons against their own population, that they continue to pursue biological, nuclear and chemical capabilities," he said.

Officials in Europe and the Arab world have warned that the coalition assembled after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 would fall apart if the United States went to war against Iraq.

So far, the United States says it has found no compelling evidence of an Iraqi link to the September attacks or to the outbreaks of anthrax. Europeans say such evidence would be needed to persuade many nations to back a new military offensive against Iraq.

But advocates of military action say U.N. inspectors couldn't curb the Iraqi threat, even if they were allowed in.

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