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Rumsfeld Reports Unsolicited Support Over Iraq

Diplomacy: U.S. defense chief says NATO allies have given quiet backing to potential war. Paris and Berlin don't appear to be among them.

September 26, 2002|JOHN HENDREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WARSAW — Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said he did not come to a NATO meeting here to drum up support for a potential war with Iraq but that it came unsolicited anyway.

Those giving their quiet backing Wednesday, however, did not appear to include representatives of Germany or France, who have expressed reservations.

After an intelligence briefing Tuesday that linked Iraq both to weapons of mass destruction and Al Qaeda, some defense ministers at a meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization voiced support for the Bush administration's policy of "regime change" in Iraq, Rumsfeld told reporters.

"I was not there yesterday or last night or this morning soliciting support. You ask if it just happened to come over the transom without being asked for. And the answer is yes," Rumsfeld told reporters, declining to name the nations. "People did come up to me and indicate in a variety of ways the views of their governments."

The secretary has said he has not sought NATO backing for a prospective war because President Bush has not decided to declare one.

The closed-door presentation of classified intelligence reports by Rumsfeld and Deputy CIA Director John E. McLaughlin prompted animated discussion during the meetings and at an informal dinner that followed, NATO Secretary-General George Robertson said.

Although no minister reported a consensus of opinion, Robertson said: "There is a growing feeling that weapons of mass destruction

Neither Rumsfeld nor Robertson would describe the extent of support for the U.S. position that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is developing weapons of mass destruction in violation of international sanctions and should be deposed, possibly by force. But it was clear that NATO's most vocal critic of that policy, Germany, was not among those offering the backing.

The rift between the U.S. and Germany remained deep and wide Wednesday, and American defense officials--whose displeasure is said to reflect Bush's view--remained visibly not appeased by German efforts at rapprochement.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder narrowly won reelection Sunday after criticizing the U.S. policy toward Iraq. His justice minister was forced to resign Monday after allegedly saying that Bush was talking of war to distract Americans from a weak economy in much the same way Adolf Hitler did, an accusation she denies.

As a result, Rumsfeld and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice have said that Germany has "poisoned" a cooperative relationship with the United States that had endured since shortly after World War II.

German Defense Minister Peter Struck apparently sought to smooth things over during the three days of meetings. He said he shook his American counterpart's hand. He also was visible near Rumsfeld when a photograph of the ministers was taken, although the two did not speak.

For his part, Rumsfeld challenged reports that he had left the room before his German colleague spoke at the dinner.

"I think he had spoken at that meeting earlier," Rumsfeld said. "There was no snubbing that I saw in the entire meeting by anybody--that was visible."

Asked what advice he had for the Germans--whose defense minister skipped Rumsfeld's intelligence briefing and returned to Berlin for a political party meeting Tuesday--Rumsfeld at first said it was not his place to offer other nations advice. Then, apparently unable to resist, he added, "We do have a saying in America: If you're in a hole, stop digging." After a pause, he shook his head and added with a wry smile, "I'm not sure I should have said that."

Minutes later, Rumsfeld left the meeting, apparently without mending the rift with the longtime U.S. ally.

Germany is not alone in voicing concern about the U.S. strategy on Iraq. Among the skeptics was French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie, who said a war in Iraq could unite Muslims against the West and initiate a precedent that would lead nations to launch preemptive strikes.

Russia, which has an economic relationship with Iraq, has also expressed reservations about the prospect of war. Although Russia is not a NATO member, it has had a formal relationship with the alliance since May that involves consultations on a wide range of issues.

As his Air Force plane headed toward Washington, the flight crew played a film at Rumsfeld's request: "The Gathering Storm," the saga of Winston Churchill's successful pre-World War II push to end London's campaign of appeasement of a dictator known for his brutal methods and of Britain's entry into a conflict that Churchill had argued was inevitable.

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