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Cohen Vows Any Strike on Iraq 'Will Be Significant'

Mideast: As additional U.S. planes and ships head for Gulf, Baghdad accuses U.S. of blocking a resolution to crisis. Eight Arab states lay blame on Hussein regime.


WASHINGTON — The United States and Iraq stood resolute Thursday as Defense Secretary William S. Cohen delivered a message, stern in its simplicity, that whatever punishing military strikes the U.S. launches against Saddam Hussein "will be significant."

With the powerful components of the Pentagon's war machine--additional ships, B-52 bombers and F-117A Stealth fighters--moving into position, the Clinton administration brushed aside any suggestion that there is room for diplomacy to avert an attack, and possibly a massive one, at virtually any moment.

President Clinton, whose national security advisors met without him Thursday, was silent on the subject during his one public appearance of the day. But others in the administration kept up the drumbeat.

"We're not playing games," Cohen said.

"There is no need for further warnings to Iraq," State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said. "We have been at this a long time. They understand our seriousness. This is a grave situation."

In Baghdad, Tarik Aziz, the deputy prime minister and Iraq's most seasoned diplomat, held out little hope of a peaceful resolution, telling reporters: "We don't see any light at the end of the tunnel. There is a tunnel after the tunnel.

"The road is being blocked continuously, stubbornly, illegally by [Clinton's] government," he said.

The crisis over Iraq's decision nearly two weeks ago to shut down U.N. weapons inspections appears to be nearing a boiling point just as Clinton and other top aides are scheduled to depart for an Asian economic conference in Malaysia. Clinton is scheduled to leave Washington on Saturday.

Officials have not said that the plan is being changed--nor have they said whether he would launch an attack while out of the country.

The Clinton administration took heart from a rare display of unity--perhaps greater than at any time since the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War--that found nations in Europe and, most significantly, much of the Arab world lining up behind the United States.

The foreign ministers of eight Arab nations issued a statement Thursday holding Baghdad responsible for exposing "the innocent Iraqi people to more miseries and tragedies."

The statement--made by Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Oman--said: "The Iraqi government is held responsible for any consequences that might arise from its refusal to back down from its decision to expel the U.N. weapons inspectors."

In the United States' view, the crisis has been precipitated by Iraq's refusal Aug. 5 to prohibit the U.N. Special Commission from carrying out field inspections for the nuclear, chemical and biological weapons that Iraq is charged with eliminating.

On Oct. 31, Iraq took the additional step of halting the monitoring of previously discovered weapons sites. Iraq says it will not cooperate with the disarmament regimen until the economic sanctions imposed after Baghdad invaded Kuwait in 1990 are lifted.

By drawing attention to the Arab nations' statement, the administration was demonstrating more than the breadth of support it is claiming against President Hussein. It was carefully building a defense against the inevitable outcry should bombs and missiles bring pictures of civilian casualties into global living rooms.

"These are countries that know him well, understand what's happening inside Iraq more than most. They've clearly pinned responsibility on Saddam Hussein," a White House official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "It's a welcome development."

The officials said that, earlier in the week, Clinton had spoken with the emir of Qatar, expressing hope that a "strong statement" would emerge, and Cohen and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, speaking with counterparts in the region, made clear that the U.S. would value such a show of support.

Clinton also spoke by telephone Thursday with Germany's new chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, and with the prime ministers of Belgium, the Netherlands and Sweden.

In trying to build popular support for military action, the administration is painting Hussein as a leader without a reed of support in the diplomatic world--"a lone voice that is completely isolated," said Joe Lockhart, the White House press secretary.

Signaling that military operations--although not certain--could begin without further notice, he said: "We're not getting into timetables. We're not getting into deadlines. We're not getting into ultimatums."

Beyond the immediate concerns about whether and when the president will give a go-ahead to the Pentagon, there were questions about the extent of any attack and its objectives.

Administration officials were reluctant to discuss military plans in detail--and, in particular, the sensitive issue of whether the unspoken goal would be, in effect, Hussein's loss of power, if not his life. U.S. policy prohibits targeting foreign leaders for assassination.

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