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SHOWDOWN WITH IRAQ

Powell Will Speak, but Will They Believe?

Secretary says he'll present evidence of illegal weapons programs in Iraq. Security Council members are skeptical.

February 05, 2003|Maggie Farley | Times Staff Writer

UNITED NATIONS — If Secretary of State Colin L. Powell fails to win over Security Council skeptics today, it won't be for a lack of time or diplomacy or case-building. It will be for a lack of trust.

Nearly all of the council's 15 members have said they want to see, in the Russian ambassador's words, "undeniable evidence" from the U.S. that Iraq retains weapons of mass destruction before they would consider an attack on Baghdad.

"America is saying, 'Just trust us,' " a council diplomat said. "But the only thing we can know for sure is that they are ready to invade Iraq no matter what."

Even if Powell presents convincing evidence, several key council members -- including France, Russia, China, Germany and Mexico -- have signaled they won't be swayed from their belief that the best way to disarm Iraq is through inspections, not force.

"We are going to listen very carefully to Mr. Powell, and we have an open mind about what he's going to say, but we feel very strongly about the continuation of inspections," Mexican Ambassador Adolfo Aguilar Zinser said Tuesday. "Whatever evidence is presented should be useful to the work of the inspectors and allow them to disarm Iraq through peaceful means."

His comments echoed French President Jacques Chirac's statement after meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Tuesday that France is opposed to military action while the inspectors' work is unfinished. Any action, Chirac added, should be taken only with the Security Council's blessing.

The lack of trust in the United States irks those who see today's presentation as the culmination of months of careful case-building against Iraq.

"I must say I sort of find it astonishing that the issue is whether you can trust the U.S. government," Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz said in a recent speech. "The real issue is, can you trust Saddam Hussein?"

Powell's elaborate multimedia presentation is a high-stakes gamble to convince the United Nations that it can't. At the risk of revealing the extent of U.S. intelligence capabilities, Powell will try to demonstrate that Iraqis are actively concealing weapons of mass destruction and deceiving inspectors, presenting, among other things, interceptions of phone calls ordering sites to be cleaned up before the U.N. teams arrive.

And he is expected to scold inspectors, noting that they have acted on only about 5% of "strong" intelligence tips that the U.S. and others have provided. CIA Director George J. Tenet and his deputy, John McLaughlin, will attend to underline the importance and quality of the intelligence, U.S. officials said.

The secretary knows it's a big day. He spent the weekend at his home in northern Virginia polishing his presentation and rehearsed again at the U.S. mission across the street from the United Nations on Tuesday. He will pass out a computer disk with the details of his demonstration and will display varying degrees of even more sensitive information in private meetings with foreign ministers of 14 nations.

Powell, ambassadors here agree, is a tremendously respected diplomat, a military man who knows the realities of war, and the best one to make a credible case for it. He has downplayed the drama of his presentation, promising a "straightforward, sober and compelling demonstration" that Iraq has failed the two tests in the U.N. resolution passed last fall: to come clean and to cooperate with inspectors.

Washington expects the presentation to work.

"If this full-fledged multimedia presentation isn't enough to persuade the doubting Thomases," a U.S. official said, "then we have to move on."

The next step will be for the U.S. and Britain to convince skeptics that, given Iraq's track record, more time won't make a difference for weapons inspectors and that they should approve the "serious consequences" -- military action -- that they approved unanimously in the resolution.

A second resolution that would authorize the use of force is "preferable but not necessary," President Bush has said. The White House is betting that if a vote is held for such a resolution, Germany and Syria would opt out but France and others wouldn't want to be left behind.

As last-ditch diplomatic efforts continue, so do military preparations. The Bush administration is lining up a "coalition of the willing," and troops will be fully deployed in March.

Last week, Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage said that 22 countries support the last-resort use of force and that nine would offer military assistance. France's nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle left Tuesday for a three-week exercise with a U.S. carrier in the eastern Mediterranean, the French Defense Ministry said, while denying that the move was related to "the international situation."

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