Iraq action coming within 'weeks'
Published: Friday, January 31, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 31, 2003 at 2:30 a.m.
WASHINGTON - President Bush put allies on notice Thursday that diplomacy will give way to a decision on war in "weeks, not months." Wary world leaders and congressional critics urged patience and demanded proof of Iraq's transgressions.
Opening an eleventh-hour campaign to sway a wide array of skeptics, the president said, "For the sake of peace, this issue must be resolved." His advisers said Bush will maintain consultations with allies through mid-February, when the next U.N. weapons inspectors' report is expected to force talks to closure.
In a flurry of diplomatic activity, Bush met with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, placed calls to leaders of Portugal and Sweden and dispatched top advisers throughout Washington to argue his case, and broached the possibility of allowing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to leave Iraq for a safe haven - all actions aimed at pressuring both Baghdad and balking U.S. allies.
Abroad, eight European leaders signed a letter in support of Bush's position and, in Jordan, the government agreed to base U.S. troops in the kingdom.
But the president's position met resistance from many corners, including Democratic and Republican lawmakers, a delegation from Pakistan, former South African President Nelson Mandela and the Canadian foreign minister, who said his nation opposed unilateral American action.
"If one state acts by itself it risks consequences," Bill Graham said after meeting with Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Another ally wavered at the White House, when Pakistani Foreign Minister Khursheed Kasuri told Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney his country preferred any military action be approved by the United Nations. He warned that war casualties could inflame his fellow citizens.
"There will be a reaction to the events in Iraq," Kasuri said.
On Capitol Hill, Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., said Bush's approach has made the United States seem "like a bunch of cowboys" too eager to strike Saddam.
And Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island suggested the danger posed by Saddam appeared to be diminished because of international pressure.
The gears of war kept grinding.
The buildup of U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf region is now approaching 90,000 land, sea and air forces, and that number likely will double within two weeks, officials said Thursday.
By mid-February there are expected to be nearly 180,000 troops in the region, and the total could reach 250,000 later.
On the eve of Bush's Camp David meeting with Prime Minister Tony Blair, the British government prepared to call up 6,000 military reservists for possible Iraq duty. That is four times the number previously announced.
Blair, the president's staunchest supporter, said in Spain that he was convinced that the United Nations would back a military attack on Iraq if Saddam refuses to disarm.
War could expose the United States to new terrorist attacks, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said.
"As we plan for a military engagement - plan for it - it would be irresponsible for us not to contemplate the possibility that it might precipitate other attacks," he said.
In Baghdad, Iraq's ruling party dismissed Bush's State of the Union address as a "Hollywood farce" and said he had offered no evidence to support U.S. accusations that Saddam is hiding chemical and biological weapons.
Iraq also invited the chief U.N. inspectors to Baghdad for talks aimed at improving cooperation before their next report to the Security Council on Feb. 14.
That report probably will usher in the end of consultations between Bush and his U.N. allies and force a decision on war, several senior administration officials said on condition of anonymity.
"This is a matter of weeks, not months," Bush said of the consultation process.
But the president is not putting a deadline on talks because too many factors will drive the diplomatic work, including the status of negotiations over a possible second resolution - or even unforeseen change of heart from Saddam, a coup or exile.
If Saddam has not disarmed and diplomacy has run its course when the U.N. report is filed, Bush is unlikely to condone more weapons inspections, officials said. The president's next step would be to force the U.N. to choose between authorizing military action or leaving it to the United States to wage war with willing allies.
One Bush option is to seek a second U.N. resolution, either authorizing force or simply declaring Saddam in violation of last fall's version. Bush discussed the idea with Berlusconi, who wants a second resolution.
Bush has not committed to one.
He will use the time between now and Feb. 14 to polish military plans and build his case against Saddam, officials said. The process includes sending Powell to the U.N. next week to unveil recently declassified intelligence the administration says supports U.S. accusations.
"Hopefully, the pressure of the free world will convince Mr. Saddam Hussein to relinquish power," Bush said, offering exile as one possible peaceful outcome.
Washington also has encouraged a coup against Saddam, a prospect being discussed by Arab countries for the first time.
Saudi Prince Saud al-Faisal, the nation's foreign minister who visited Bush, is reportedly urging world leaders to consider the possibility of giving Saddam safe haven.
With logs aglow in the Oval Office's fireplace, Berlusconi pledged his support to Bush and called the United States "the guarantee of our democracy."
As the president's war council fanned out across the Washington area, Cheney told conservative political activists the world must confront "a brutal dictator with ties to terror."
On Capitol Hill, many Democratic senators - and at least a handful of Republicans - questioned administration officials about why inspections shouldn't be given more time.
FYI: Major developments in the Iraq crisis
Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.
Comments are currently unavailable on this article