U.S. believes Russia is shifting on Iraq

White House official says Moscow appears ready to accept possible attack

March 05, 2002|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration is becoming more confident that Russian President Vladimir V. Putin will not oppose possible military action against Iraq, a senior official said yesterday.

If Russia were to agree, it would mark a major shift from the policy that the Kremlin has pursued since the late 1990s, when Moscow became Baghdad's principal defender in the United Nations Security Council and pushed for an early end to sanctions against Iraq.

The administration is beginning to prepare the diplomatic ground for military action to remove President Saddam Hussein if he continues to bar U.N. weapons inspectors from Iraq or blocks their access to sensitive sites.

Unlike the Clinton administration, which used airstrikes merely to try to force Iraq to cooperate with the inspections, the Bush team has made clear that its goal in any new military action would be to end Hussein's regime.

The senior official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, has been involved in recent talks with the Kremlin. He said conversations with Russian officials indicate that the kind of Russian cooperation already evident in the U.S.-led war on terrorism might now extend to Iraq.

"I think they acknowledge our analysis that if the Iraqis refuse to let the inspectors in, or obstruct the inspectors once they are in, they're in violation of 687," the official said, referring to the U.N. resolution laying out the terms of the cease-fire that ended the 1991 Persian Gulf war. Russia also agrees that if the cease-fire has been violated, "the authorization to use force comes back into effect," the official said.

A Russian Embassy spokesman, Yevgeniy Khorishko, declined to comment on the U.S. official's statements other than to say, "We are cooperating with the United States in the U.N. on the Iraq issue."

Even if Russia supported military strikes to force Iraqi compliance on inspections, getting the Kremlin to agree to the forced removal of Hussein would be "a lot harder" the American official said, because of historically close ties between Russia and Iraq.

"But on the other hand, the cooperation the Russians have shown since Sept. 11 in a whole range of things - operations in the Central Asian republics, operations in Georgia - are things that nobody would have predicted pre-Sept. 11. So I don't even rule that out necessarily."

Since President Bush's State of the Union speech, in which he labeled Iraq part of an "axis of evil" along with Iran and North Korea, U.S. officials have made it increasingly clear that the president is intent on what they call "regime change" in Iraq. But they have said no decision has been made on when or how to do it. The official who spoke in an interview yesterday said military action, if it occurs, would not come before the May summit between Bush and Putin.

Even if Russia acquiesces, U.S. military action against Iraq faces opposition in Europe and among a number of Arab leaders, who would face strong domestic opposition to an American attack against an Arab state.

And because Hussein himself would be threatened by the United States in a way that he wasn't during the 1991 war, the United States needs to prepare for the possibility that he would take desperate measures to save his regime - perhaps by unleashing an arsenal of chemical or biological weapons against U.S. forces, Israel or Gulf Arab states.

"The Hitler-in-the-bunker mentality - `If I'm going down, I'm going to take everything else with me' - is not something you can discount," the senior administration official said yesterday. "And therefore the threat to other nearby countries in particular is something you have to worry about before you make any of these decisions."

Vice President Dick Cheney's trip to the region this month "will be part of the process of finding out what people think so we can get a better handle on that."

In an apparent move to prevent or forestall a U.S. military campaign, Iraq shows signs of relenting on its refusal for the past three years to allow U.N. inspectors back into the country. Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri is due to meet Thursday in New York with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan.

Most U.S. officials don't believe Saddam Hussein will allow inspections that might uncover weapons of mass destruction or weapons-development that he has been determined to keep hidden.

But U.S. allies see a value to trying to get the inspectors back into Iraq. And Secretary of State Colin L. Powell indicated over the weekend that he did, too.

"I have no illusions about the ability of inspectors to find everything, but I think they can play a useful role," Powell said in a CNN interview.

The senior official added, "It's important to go through the exercise one more time so that there's no doubt in anybody's mind that the Iraqis are never going to really comply with 687, which requires free and unfettered access to the inspectors."

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