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Bush Takes Diplomatic Detour on Iraq Policy

Strategy: Tough talk on a 'regime change' will come only after urging 'disarmament.'


WASHINGTON — For months, the Bush administration has been wrestling with two imperfect options: Pushing ahead with a military plan to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Or pressing at the United Nations for intrusive new inspections to rid the Iraqi leader of his deadliest arms.

Last week, President Bush made his decision: He's going to do both.

The new U.S. course, a response to both domestic and international pressures, also bridges a gap within the administration. It blends the tactics advocated quietly behind the scenes by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell with the strategic goals pronounced publicly and intensely by Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld.

So, at least for now, more tough talk about "regime change" will come only after further diplomatic language about "disarming" Iraq.

"The issue is disarmament," Bush said last week. "I'm going to call upon the world to recognize that [Hussein] is stiffing the world.... And I will talk about ways to make sure that he fulfills his obligations."

Bush's decision to stop by the United Nations on the road to Baghdad was a significant concession for a president who has often been willing to travel alone. The only thing that may have changed over the last week, however, is the number of stops on the journey.

The president, who is scheduled to address the General Assembly on Thursday, hasn't wavered in his belief that the only reliable way to disarm Iraq is to topple Hussein, who has spent much of 23 years in power building weapons of mass destruction--and occasionally using them.

Bush will press this week for immediate, intrusive U.N. inspections of Iraq. But if the goal of eliminating Hussein's chemical, biological and nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles isn't reached quickly, the drumbeat of war will resume.

As backup, the administration is also assembling a dossier alleging Iraqi violations of other U.N. resolutions, including massive human rights abuses against Iraqi citizens and neighboring countries that might be punishable as war crimes. The implicit message is that disarmament is not enough.

Hawks inside and outside the Bush administration who argued against seeking new authority from the U.N. Security Council for action against Iraq hope the president's New York visit is only a short detour.

But administration officials insist that the new diplomatic offensive is about substance, not just style.

"It's not just a show. It's the president realizing you have to make the effort, you have to go to the U.N., you've got to gather allies and like-minded friends and persuade them of the right-mindedness of it," said a senior State Department official who requested anonymity.

"This is not tossing a fig leaf. It's more than a bow to international opinion."

The administration's approach has now changed in two fundamental ways.

First, the justification for action has shifted. Lacking a commanding new casus belli, or reason for war, hawks in the administration had tried to wrap Iraq up in the war on terrorism.

Some tried to cite the presence of Al Qaeda forces in northern Iraq's Kurdistan--even though the Islamic militants there are operating in opposition territory and also seeking to oust Hussein's secular regime.

But that argument, in the absence of clear linkage, had few takers at home and virtually none besides Israel abroad. Iraq increasingly stands as a separate danger.

Second, deliberations within the administration on the complex issues faced in Iraq--from ousting a dictator and creating a democracy to stabilizing a fractious society and ensuring the free flow of oil to the outside world--made it clear that the United States could not go it alone, U.S. officials acknowledge. The cacophony of voices at home and abroad questioning, cautioning, worrying about and protesting America's determination to confront the Iraqi leader also took a toll.

So the administration is plunging into real consultation with other governments, a process that is likely to dominate its fall agenda--and influence the outcome.

One sign of the administration's seriousness is its plan to dispatch U.S. teams--made up of intelligence, military and diplomatic officials armed with massive dossiers of intelligence data--to about 40 countries over the next few weeks to outline its concerns about Iraq's weapons programs, according to U.S. officials.

Another was the State Department scramble at week's end to outline the many scenarios that could now unfold--including the possibility that Hussein might comply with U.N. resolutions, allow inspectors into Iraq and dismantle his weapons.

"You have to be prepared to take yes for an answer," another official warned. "What if all conditions are met for the most vigorous, the most coercive set of inspections? The odds of that are slim, but not 100%" impossible, the official said.

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