WASHINGTON — Iraqi troops fired warning shots to prevent a U.N. task force from investigating a suspected nuclear facility Friday, an incident that President Bush called an "incontrovertible, unarguable" violation of the Gulf War cease-fire.
Bush vowed to take steps to enforce U.N. resolutions calling for destruction of Iraq's nuclear and chemical warfare potential. Although he said he would try diplomatic means first, the President clearly left open the possibility of military action.
A few hours later, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein appeared to back down, ordering his government to cooperate fully with the U.N. inspectors. American officials noted, however, that Hussein had promised such cooperation when he accepted the cease-fire and has failed, so far, to live up to that pledge.
"We can't . . . permit this brutal bully to go back on what was a solemn agreement and to threaten people that are there under U.N. jurisdiction," Bush told reporters aboard Air Force One on his way to a weekend visit to his home in Kennebunkport, Me.
At the United Nations, the Security Council accused Iraq of a "flagrant violation" of the cease-fire resolution and demanded immediate access for U.N. inspectors.
The council warned that "any recurrence of non-compliance would have serious consequences." It also decided to send a high-level mission to Baghdad to underscore the demand for free access to all suspected Iraqi nuclear facilities.
Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar condemned the Iraqi action but said the situation did not warrant "taking any military action."
State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler, reading from an account prepared by U.S. officials, said the U.N. inspectors were able to take still photographs and motion pictures of the suspect site despite the shots fired in the air by Iraqi troops.
"Iraqi soldiers prevented the inspection team from conducting a challenge inspection . . . where suspected nuclear-related equipment was being moved and stored," Tutwiler said. "As the team awaited entrance to the facility, it observed vehicles within the compound loaded with the objects the team specifically desired to inspect.
"These loaded vehicles departed out of the back exit of the facility," she said. "We understand the team was able to identify the equipment as related to Iraq's uranium-enrichment program."
Iraqi troops frustrated an attempted U.N. inspection at another facility earlier this week by removing suspect material. The inspectors were allowed into the area once all of the equipment had been removed.
Before leaving for Kennebunkport, Bush conferred with his National Security Council on possible U.S. responses.
The President said the United States already has ample authority from the Security Council to take military action because the council resolutions that authorized the Gulf War earlier this year have not been revoked. Nevertheless, he promised to try peaceful means first.
"We've got some serious work now ahead of us . . . the diplomatic process has to start," Bush said. "I think that we need to be sure that we start immediate consultation at the U.N. Now, don't press me (on what) I'll do beyond that, because I'm not prepared to say what we'll do."
Referring to Hussein, Bush said: "The man has no shame."
"I think world opinion will mount fast against him on this issue," Bush added. "I mean, shooting in the air to scare off people sanctioned by the United Nations who are there to expose what this man has done? I mean, I don't think the world will support this at all, and the United States certainly won't."
Iraq agreed to the supervised destruction of all of its "weapons of mass destruction" when it accepted the U.N. resolution that ended the fighting in the Gulf War. The Iraqis had little choice at the time because if they had rejected the conditions, the punishing allied ground and air war would have continued.
U.S. officials maintain that if Iraq fails to abide by the letter of the resolution, the United States and its allies would be justified in resuming the war. Nevertheless, an Administration official said that military action was unlikely for the time being. With most ground troops already withdrawn, any military action would have to be carried out by air power, probably from two Navy aircraft carriers that remain in the area.
Asked if he was convinced that Iraq's latest action was a violation of the cease-fire, Bush said: "Yes, I am totally satisfied of that. I have seen incontrovertible evidence to this effect. Incontrovertible. Unarguable. Clear."
In Baghdad, the Iraqi News Agency reported that Hussein told the ruling Revolutionary Command Council on Friday night that he had ordered full cooperation with the U.N. task force.
"The president has ordered all responsible authorities to cooperate in full with the U.N. representatives and make their mission easy in line with commitments pledged by Iraq," the news agency said.