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Bush to Press for Military Backing in Event of War

'Everybody can contribute something,' he says on way to NATO summit. Campaign to garner support has been going on for months.

November 20, 2002|Paul Richter | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — President Bush arrived in the Czech Republic on Tuesday aggressively seeking commitments of military support from European leaders for a possible war against Iraq.

"Everybody can contribute something," Bush told Czech TV late Monday before leaving Washington for the two-day NATO summit in Prague, the Czech capital. A coalition against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein could be formed in "all kinds of ways," he said in an interview broadcast Tuesday on Radio Free Europe.

Bush's statements were the highest-level acknowledgment of the campaign to secure military support that lower-level officials have been quietly pursuing for months. The administration has been offering inducements ranging from financial payments to diplomatic assistance in a bid to secure backing if the United Nations effort to disarm Hussein fails.

The recent unanimous vote by the U.N. Security Council in favor of tough new arms inspections has dramatically intensified the coalition-building effort.

Passage of the U.N. resolution changed the issue of military commitments overnight "from something that was hypothetical to something that's real. It really strengthens their hand," said a senior congressional aide.

The aide predicted that the Eastern European countries that want to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization will be only too happy to publicly back any Iraq campaign as a way of showing they would be worthy allies.

And even if their contributions were small, their assistance would be valuable to the United States for publicity reasons.

"We could say we've got a 70-country coalition, even if only five or six are contributing anything big," the aide said.

U.S. officials already have approached about 50 countries, both to plan a possible campaign and to send Hussein a signal that U.N. members are determined to move against him if he obstructs weapons inspectors, who arrived in Baghdad on Monday.

"This is a way to make sure that Saddam Hussein knows we're serious," said a senior State Department official. "Our experience shows that diplomacy works best when it is backed up by the possible use of force."

The administration expects no trouble finding partners if the Security Council finds that Hussein has broken his pledge to allow the inspectors to conduct their work without hindrance. But U.S. officials would like to line up allies willing to go into Iraq even without U.N. support.

U.S. officials are pressing their case with Middle Eastern countries that would be vital in any Iraq campaign, such as Turkey and the Persian Gulf states. And they are broadening their campaign to include close allies that usually have been important military partners, such as Canada and Australia.

Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien acknowledged Tuesday that the U.S. had approached Canada and allies seeking a commitment, just as it did before the Afghan war and the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

"We'll see what we've got; we'll see what they need," Chretien told reporters in Ottawa. "We already have ships, planes, troops" in the region. He said the request remained "very hypothetical, because I hope Saddam will comply and there will be no war."

A U.S. official declined to characterize what the overall response has been but said countries are considering the issue and have no deadline for a decision.

Officials have been working hard to firm up support from Turkey, which has long been an important base for U.S. aircraft and would be key to staging any attack through northern Iraq. They have opened talks with Turkey on a compensation package aimed at offsetting any losses the country might suffer in a war. The package could be worth billions and could include debt forgiveness, direct aid and U.S. weapons at discounted prices.

Bush this week helped Turkey on one of its top concerns by urging the European Union to begin negotiations over the country's accession to the alliance. Bush called the current EU president, Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, to urge that the alliance take the next step toward accepting Turkey when EU leaders meet in Denmark next month.

U.S. officials may well not be able to meet the price the Turks set for their help, which could run into the billions of dollars. But to try to make sure that a large aid package wins congressional support, the officials have helped arrange a trip for senior U.S. lawmakers, including House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, to Ankara, the Turkish capital, this week.

U.S. officials also have discussed a special aid package for Jordan, a country that relies on Iraqi oil and trade and whose large Palestinian population would oppose any attack on Iraq. The U.S. is looking for intelligence cooperation and overflight rights from the kingdom.

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