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SHOWDOWN WITH IRAQ

Delaying War Could Winnow the Willing

Foreign leaders who back the U.S. fear losing their hold on power as opposition grows.

February 23, 2003|Doyle McManus | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — As the Bush administration has moved steadily toward war with Iraq, critics from France to California have asked: What's the hurry? Why not give United Nations arms inspectors another month -- or three months, or six -- to look for weapons of mass destruction?

President Bush says the United States cannot afford to delay much longer, and argues that waiting only makes Iraqi President Saddam Hussein more dangerous.

"Denial and endless delay in the face of growing danger is not an option," Bush said last week.

But other officials, speaking less publicly, cited another practical reason for their sense of urgency: They are increasingly concerned that the tenuous coalition the administration has assembled in support of war may crumble if a military campaign is postponed.

Several Arab countries are quietly pressing the administration "to get this over with," several senior officials said.

European allies such as Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, who visited Bush at his Texas ranch Friday and Saturday, are worried that antiwar sentiment in their countries will only increase -- and endanger their governments' hold on power -- until the crisis is resolved, the officials said.

And the Bush administration, surveying a long list of other problems, from North Korea to Israel, has concluded that it has little to gain but a great deal to lose if the impasse with Iraq continues much longer.

"At this point, delay has no real benefits but plenty of very real costs," a senior official argued.

The price of waiting is not only political, officials say. There are economic, military and human costs too.

The deployment of more than 150,000 U.S. troops to the Persian Gulf has already required more than $2 billion, and that sum will increase the longer they are there.

"It costs money," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said last week on PBS' "NewsHour." "It keeps people away from their homes and families.... So obviously, your first choice is not to flow forces and then sustain them there for one, two, three, four years, whatever, another 12. There has to be some end to these things. Either you use them or you bring them back."

Weather is an issue too. Military officers have said that if they are to fight in Iraq, they would prefer to do so before the blazing desert summer begins.

And, although administration officials insist that it is not a factor in their planning, some economists have warned that a recovery in the U.S. economy will be difficult until the uncertainty over war is resolved.

But the administration's main reason for rejecting a significant delay, officials say, is a combination of several fears: that Hussein might somehow use chemical or biological weapons in a preemptive strike, that U.S. credibility would be damaged if Washington relented now and that one or more U.S. allies might get cold feet -- or, worse, get overthrown.

Opponents of Bush's policy, such as French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, have proposed that the United States allow U.N. arms inspectors to continue scouring Iraq for suspected weapons of mass destruction for several more months. They argue that the goal of disarming Iraq -- or at least deterring it from using any prohibited weapons -- can be accomplished without war.

But one senior administration official -- who, like most, spoke on condition of anonymity -- said Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Kuwait have warned that they will face increased domestic unrest, abetted by Iraq, if Hussein wins a reprieve.

The official described one Arab leader as saying: "Please don't broadcast [our support], particularly if you're not serious. We can't afford to be exposed to Saddam's wrath if you don't do something -- but if you do, we're with you."

"There are many [in the Arab world] who say: 'If you're going to do this, do it now. Get it over with. We know we'll be better off when he's gone, and the uncertainty is killing us,' " another official said.

If the United States agreed to a delay of more than a month, he added, "I think Saddam would think we're not serious, most of the Arab world would think we're not serious, and we wouldn't disarm Iraq."

As for European countries, officials have grown skeptical that a long delay would change the positions of France and Germany, the continent's two strongest critics of U.S. policy.

Meanwhile, one official warned, "Delay may not do [British Prime Minister] Tony Blair or our other friends much good."

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell alluded to the administration's fear of losing diplomatic momentum in his impassioned speech before the U.N. Security Council on Feb. 14.

"String it out long enough and the world will start looking in other directions. The Security Council will move on," he said, describing what he said was Iraq's aim.

In an interview with The Times, Powell argued that if the United States went to war and won quickly, the tenor of world opinion could change dramatically.

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