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RESPONSE TO TERROR | IRAQ : NEWS ANALYSIS

After Kabul, Should Iraq Be Next?

Strategy: Bush and top aides remain cautious about taking any action against Hussein, knowing coalition could quickly dissolve.

November 22, 2001|DOYLE McMANUS and ROBIN WRIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — The war in Afghanistan isn't over yet, but planners at the Pentagon are already thinking about another potential military front in the war on terrorism: Iraq.

President Bush has not decided whether to strike at Saddam Hussein, and does not plan to make such a decision soon, aides said. "There's still a whole lot left to do in Afghanistan," a White House official said.

But the fall of Kabul and the prospect that U.S. forces could disengage from Afghanistan have revived a policy debate that never really went away: Should Iraq be next?

Hawks in the Bush administration have urged Bush and his aides to consider launching airstrikes against Iraqi military units, including suspected chemical and biological weapons bases, officials said.

Those ideas have been resisted by Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and most U.S. allies, and the president has come down on the side of caution, officials said.

But a consensus has strengthened in favor of a tougher policy toward Iraq, even if it does not lead to military strikes, officials said.

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the war in Afghanistan "changed the environment in two ways," a senior administration official said Wednesday. "There is less tolerance for bad people. . . . And we've seen that there's a lot of good that comes from working with coalitions."

Translation: The administration wants to get tougher with Saddam Hussein--but it doesn't want to lose the support of its allies when it does.

And the allies have been vocal in their opposition to military strikes against Baghdad. "Europe would have many very, very serious questions about that, to put it diplomatically," German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said Wednesday during a visit to Washington.

Bush and his aides have long made it clear that they consider Iraq's authoritarian regime a threat. "The world would clearly be better and the Iraqi people would be better off if Saddam Hussein were not in power," National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice said earlier this week.

But finding a way to get that done has been "a study in frustration," one senior official said.

Saddam Hussein has remained in power despite 10 years of United Nations economic sanctions. He expelled U.N. arms inspectors in 1998 and withstood the U.S. airstrikes that followed.

Earlier this year, the administration proposed a new approach--reinstituting weapons inspections in exchange for looser economic sanctions--only to see Russia block the idea in the U.N. Security Council.

Even before Sept. 11, that impasse led hawks like Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz to revive discussion of military options, officials said.

"The planning, the thinking, the contingency work is being done" on possible military operations, one official said, adding that such planning doesn't mean a decision has been made to go ahead.

Another official said options that have been discussed include airstrikes against Iraq's elite Republican Guard and combined airstrikes and ground strikes, using special operations teams, against suspected chemical and biological weapons facilities.

At the same time, U.S. intelligence agencies have looked for evidence that Iraq was among the sponsors and supporters of Al Qaeda, the terrorist network that the U.S. believes carried out the Sept. 11 attack--and have come up empty, officials said.

"There's not a drop of evidence" linking Iraq to the terrorist hijackings, a senior intelligence official said.

The suspected leader of the Sept. 11 hijackers, Mohamed Atta, met with an Iraqi intelligence official in Prague last summer, according to a Czech official report that U.S. officials consider accurate. But the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies have been unable to determine what they discussed.

"Bad guys meet bad guys all the time," one U.S. official said.

"We have the existing Prague information, but nothing more," another official said. "So far, there's only one brick upon which this house is being built."

Indeed, another official said: "It may be that nationals of other societies helped out. People are looking not just at Iraq, but at other individuals from nations with capabilities--Russians, Chinese, Pakistanis."

If evidence turns up that links Iraq to the Sept. 11 attacks, administration officials would be virtually unanimous in favoring military retaliation, aides said.

Some believe the link may yet turn up. "There's likely to be a fair amount of information collected in Afghanistan that will make exchanges between Iraqi individuals and Al Qaeda very clear, almost irrefutable," said Charles Duelfer, the top U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq before 1998. "And even if it's not conclusive, the evidence will make it very hard to avoid doing something."

But until that evidence is found, the weight of opinion inside the administration appears to have swung back against military strikes.

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