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Some Consider Firing on Aircraft as Cause for War

Differing views of Iraq's actions in 'no-fly' zones may be the first crack in unity shown at the U.N.

November 15, 2002|Maggie Farley | Times Staff Writer

UNITED NATIONS — Less than a week after the unanimous approval of a U.N. resolution on disarming Iraq, Washington already faces conflict with other Security Council members -- and within the Bush administration itself -- over the interpretation of what should trigger an attack on the country.

Although U.S. officials pledged last week that Resolution 1441 contained no "hidden triggers" for military action, hawks in the National Security Council and the Pentagon have been arguing that the bar for war with Baghdad should be lowered -- and Iraq's "no-fly" zones are a key point of dispute.

If Iraqi forces continue their routine shooting at U.S. and British aircraft patrolling the zones in the north and south of the country, or if Baghdad leaves something off the list of weapons-related materiel it is supposed to deliver by Dec. 8, they argue, that should be enough to ask the Security Council to consider Iraq in "material breach" of the resolution -- a prelude to military action. Even Iraq's bombastic letter Wednesday accepting the terms for weapons inspectors has drawn U.S. fire.

But that's not what the rest of the council has in mind.

"The U.S. does seem ... to have a lower threshold than others may have" to justify war, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Wednesday in Washington before meeting with President Bush. "I think the discussions in the council made it clear we should be looking for something serious and meaningful, and not for excuses to do something."

In the eight weeks of hard-fought negotiations over the resolution, the U.S. reassured the other council members that it didn't intend to pounce on the slightest infraction of the resolution but would consider a pattern of obstruction and obfuscation to be cause for action.

In fact, diplomats dickered for two days to substitute an "and" for an "or" in the text to ensure that a simple omission from Iraq's weapons declaration would not be considered a breach.

After the resolution passed, France, China and Russia circulated a document reaffirming the U.S. statement that the resolution did not grant the automatic use of force.

But on the same day, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and other U.S. officials said they regarded Iraq's targeting of U.S. and British aircraft, which have been patrolling the no-fly zones for more than a decade, to be a violation of the resolution.

Those officials were deliberately vague on whether such attacks should be considered an action-provoking breach.

"That's for the United Nations and the president of the United States to make judgments like that," Rumsfeld said last Friday. "At what point does Saddam Hussein's behavior reflect compliance and cooperation, and at what point does it reflect something other than that?"

A council diplomat from a country that supported the U.S. throughout the U.N. negotiations said of the saber rattling: "That's not what the Security Council thought this was about. It's about disarmament, not about no-fly zones."

Even Britain, the U.S.' partner in patrolling the zones, doesn't interpret shooting at the aircraft as a trigger in itself, but only an element of an overall picture of noncompliance.

The Iraqis consider the zones an infringement on their sovereignty and regularly try to shoot down the patrol planes.

Since last Friday's vote, the issue of the no-fly zones has been debated intensely even within the administration.

Some hard-liners argue that Iraq's belligerent letter confirming its grudging acceptance of the resolution should be considered a material breach, U.S. officials said, because it claimed that Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction.

Even Secretary of State Colin L. Powell -- the U.S. leader perceived to be holding the U.N. line -- let it stretch a bit when he hinted that firing on coalition planes might be a serious enough violation of the resolution to warrant action.

"If they were to take hostile acts against the United States or United Kingdom aircraft patrolling in the northern and [southern] no-fly zone, then I think we would have to look at that with great seriousness if they continue to do that," Powell said Thursday after a meeting with Canadian Foreign Minister Bill Graham in Ottawa.

As the hard-line bluster emerges from the White House, other U.S. officials are quietly reeling the arguments back in.

"It has to be an omission and cheating on inspections," a U.S. diplomat close to the negotiation of the resolution said. "Not one or the other." Another official said the administration isn't on the same page about how hard to press the no-fly zone issue.

The resulting mixed messages are distressing those who signed on to the U.S.-backed resolution.

"It's clear that there is a segment of the administration that is absolutely trigger-happy," said another council diplomat who requested anonymity. "We believed the U.S. assurances that they would wait for a substantive breach, and we must hope that calmer minds prevail."

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