Plans for war pick up steam

Military preparations expected to become more evident soon

Congressional backing likely

Bush hasn't yet decided on attack, officials insist

September 22, 2002|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - After a pivotal week, American preparations for a war to topple the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein are gaining momentum, with President Bush likely to win crucial support from Congress for military action but with foreign backing far from certain.

With its top national security officials presenting a united front, the administration is aggressively pressing its case for military action on Capitol Hill, where support appears to be growing to grant the president broad authority for an invasion of Iraq if and when he chooses. A vote could come as early as the first week of October.

Meanwhile, analysts predict military preparations will become increasingly visible in coming weeks, as up to 2,000 Marines stage an amphibious landing exercise in Kuwait and U.S. warplanes take aim at Iraq's command-and-control facilities while patrolling the country's northern and southern no-fly zones.

In Kuwait yesterday, Gen. Tommy Franks said U.S. forces are ready to attack Iraq if ordered to.

Less visibly, the Pentagon is building up its stockpiles of precision weapons.

The United States remains caught up in difficult negotiations with Russia and other key nations over Iraq, but Bush has bluntly informed the world that he will act on his own against Hussein if the international community tries to duck the issue.

Officials insist that Bush hasn't decided to go to war, and none of the steps under way locks him into a course of action. But the past week's events suggest an increasingly credible threat of war and put the United States firmly on a course toward a showdown with Iraq.

The week began with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, confidently appearing on Sunday talk shows to reinforce Bush's message three days earlier to the United Nations. In his forceful speech to the world body, Bush laid out a harsh indictment of Saddam Hussein, accusing him of amassing weapons of mass destruction and defying U.N. demands for more than a decade.

Administration officials sensed they had the Iraqi leader on the defensive. "The phone lines to Baghdad lit up," Powell later told a congressional panel. "Lots of people were calling and saying, `They are serious. It's show time.'"

But, faster than the administration expected, Iraq reacted. Before the weekend was over, the Americans received through unofficial channels an early draft of Hussein's response: Baghdad was ready to readmit "without conditions" the U.N. weapons inspectors that it had barred for nearly four years.

Despite a full day's warning, the administration was slow to react to the offer after it was formally presented late Monday in a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan - and was unprepared for the reaction.

To many world leaders, Baghdad's decision to readmit the inspectors marked a breakthrough in ending Iraq's long defiance of the U.N. They also saw it as an opportunity to test Hussein's willingness to fore- swear chemical, biological and nuclear weapons - and a chance to prevent a new war.

A different view

The Bush administration viewed the Iraqi announcement as a stalling tactic and an attempt to prevent the United States from rallying the Security Council around confronting Iraq on its whole record of violations, including its development of weapons of mass destruction.

The White House response Monday night was a curt dismissal of the Iraqi initiative. But by the time the White House and close ally Britain marshaled their more comprehensive arguments Tuesday, many governments, including veto-wielding Security Council members Russia and France, had publicly welcomed the Iraqi announcement and urged that the inspectors be sent back to Iraq.

The rift in the Security Council spilled into the open during a joint news conference Tuesday between Powell and his Russian counterpart, Igor Ivanov, as Powell pressed the American case for new U.N. action against Iraq. Said the secretary of state: "The only way to make sure that it is not business as usual and to make sure that it is not a repeat of the past ... is to put it in the form of a new U.N. resolution."

Ivanov retorted that no new Security Council action was needed. "Russia believes that the main job now is to see to it that the inspectors ... should go to Iraq and get down to discharging their functions," he said.

On Capitol Hill, Iraq's move had little resonance. For Democratic skeptics of the Bush administration's plan to confront Iraq, the crucial turning point had come the previous week, with Bush's speech to the U.N.

By trying to enlist the world community, Bush reassured Congress that he wasn't bent on acting alone. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, announced Tuesday that the Senate would vote before the midterm elections on authorizing Bush to use military force against Iraq.

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