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Clinton Keeps Open Military Option Against Iraq

Arms: President calls move to halt cooperation with U.N. inspectors 'completely unacceptable.'

November 03, 1998|JAMES GERSTENZANG and NORMAN KEMPSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — President Clinton held out the possibility Monday that military force could be used to reopen Iraq to U.N. weapons inspectors, and dispatched Defense Secretary William S. Cohen to Europe and the Persian Gulf region for consultations with allied leaders.

Speaking publicly on the budding crisis for the first time since Iraq announced Saturday that it would halt all cooperation with the inspectors, the president declared: "Until the inspectors are back on the job, no options are off the table."

He said Iraq's move is "completely unacceptable."

"Once again," he added, "it will backfire."

In Iraq, members of the inspection team were allowed to visit sites to put new tapes in their mounted video cameras and sensors but were not permitted to conduct new inspections, U.N. officials said in New York.

For the second consecutive day, the administration's senior national security officials met at the White House, this time for an hour with Clinton.

White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart said they discussed potential measures intended to bring Iraq back into line with U.N. demands. The administration says it has the authority to take military action against Iraq without U.N. Security Council approval.

Asked specifically whether military force was under consideration, Lockhart said, "We've said repeatedly all options are on the table, and that means all options are on the table." Other officials said that military action could be considered without support from allied forces.

Despite the muddied political picture projected from Washington as Congress nears hearings on whether to impeach Clinton, Lockhart suggested that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein should not be emboldened to stand in the way of the U.N. mandate to determine whether Iraq is producing nuclear, chemical or biological weapons or long-range missiles.

"Saddam Hussein has a history of miscalculating on a very grand scale," the White House spokesman said.

Clinton, speaking at the outset of a health care event in the White House East Room, said that rather than "dividing the international community and achieving concessions," Hussein's "obstructionism has only served to deepen the international community's resolve."

"For Iraq, the only path to lifting sanctions is through complete cooperation with the weapons inspectors, without restrictions, runarounds or roadblocks," the president said.

In a preliminary step to reach out to key Security Council members, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright conferred Sunday and Monday with the foreign ministers of Russia, Britain, France and Brazil, among others.

Her spokesman, James P. Rubin, said the foreign leaders were unanimous in their assessment that "Iraq's action was inexplicable and unacceptable."

Tensions over Iraq were heightened Friday after the Security Council established a new outline for its program to monitor Iraq's progress in eliminating weapons that were prohibited after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. But the council did not promise that the new measures would result in the lifting of trade sanctions imposed on Baghdad after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

Iraq cut off most inspections Aug. 5, but its action Saturday ended even the limited work that had been taking place.

The Iraqis, said Rubin, "may have imagined that there would be more support [for their position] than there is, but . . . even their erstwhile friends are left speechless in trying to defend the indefensible."

Still, he said, Iraq's defiance may be less categorical than Baghdad's public comments would indicate.

"What they've said publicly is that they would prevent the U.N. Special Commission from conducting any further activities, including monitoring inside Iraq," Rubin said. But, he said, that restriction did not appear to apply to monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency. And, he added, Iraq had not expelled the U.N. personnel.

The State Department spokesman said the United States has no evidence that Iraq is rebuilding its weapons of mass destruction but that if such evidence were found, "we would act."

Among the Iraqi demands has been the dismissal of Richard Butler, the chief U.N. inspector. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Monday through a spokesman that he would not take such a step.

Butler briefed Annan on the developments. The secretary-general called Iraq's action "a total breach of Security Council resolutions" and called on the Baghdad government to immediately resume cooperation with the inspectors.

Times staff writer John J. Goldman in New York contributed to this report.

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