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Bush Faces a Crucial Week in Iraq Standoff

President must make his case to the public, await outcome of debate over U.N. report, talk with allies and meet with Blair to discuss options.

January 26, 2003|Robin Wright | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- For all the diplomatic theater surrounding the U.N. report on Iraq due Monday, the die is now pretty much cast. The United States has concluded -- 12 years after he first promised to disarm and 60 days after U.N. inspectors returned to Baghdad -- that Saddam Hussein has no intention of surrendering weapons of mass destruction.

That will be the thrust of the meaty section on Iraq in President Bush's State of the Union address Tuesday, although he will not declare war, administration officials said.

None of the looming obstacles, including slippage in the president's popularity, are dissuading the Bush administration from swiftly trying to wrap up the long-playing drama, according to U.S. officials and regional experts.

"The administration is not going to be deterred by the U.N. report, European crankiness, antiwar sentiment at home or regional efforts by Saddam's neighbors to get him to comply. It won't be swayed, although it may allow a bit more time for the inevitable to unfold," said Judith Yaphe, a former CIA analyst now at the National Defense University in Washington.

"President Bush," she said, "may not have issued a formal order yet, but he has made up his mind."

That doesn't mean the finale has been written. The pivotal elements of timing and the scope of global engagement are still unresolved -- and may well produce some fiery theatrics this week as the U.S. and its partners vie at the Security Council.

How the saga unfolds will be shaped largely by three events this week: the president's public address to the nation Tuesday, the deliberations over the U.N. report behind closed doors at the Security Council on Wednesday and a Washington summit between Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Friday.

Bush begins the week at a disadvantage, analysts say.

"The onus is still on the president to make his case to the public. He's going into the State of the Union handicapped because the U.N. report is unlikely to be as negative as he believes it should be -- both because the inspectors haven't found more and because Saddam isn't fully complying," said Henri J. Barkey, a former State Department policy planning staffer and now chairman of international relations at Lehigh University.

The Tuesday speech will be more important than Bush's announcement launching the war on terrorism in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, when the world rallied behind the U.S. in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. It will also be more difficult than his speech nearly five months ago to the United Nations, when Bush laid out a new strategy to deal with Iraq through the world body, not alone, and the Security Council unanimously signed on, Barkey said.

"This will be a much harder sell. It will have to be convincing, and without a smoking gun, that will be very difficult. He won't be able to get away with simple language. It will have to be the speech of his life," Barkey said.

The administration will take its argument one step further this week, officials say.

"It's not just Iraq's failure to cooperate, but it's the active attempts to prevent disarmament, the active noncooperation," said a senior State Department official who requested anonymity.

On a growing list, Baghdad has not agreed to U.N. intelligence overflights, is threatening scientists to prevent them from assisting weapons inspectors and has even transferred arms material when the U.N. teams have gotten close, the administration says.

"The overall picture is now clear," the State Department official said.

Although a flurry of diplomatic contacts will start immediately after the United Nations receives the inspectors' report Monday, the hard bargaining won't begin until after Bush outlines the parameters of the U.S. position.

"Nothing serious will happen until we hear what he says," said a French diplomat. "We're not the only ones. Everyone is waiting."

The forum switches back to the Security Council debate Wednesday on how to respond to the report from chief weapons inspector Hans Blix. Although the United States sees this debate as the climax, it is not fully scripted. Washington is waiting to see what "ideas" are floated by other key members of the U.N. cast, the State Department official said.

This part of the scenario is "organic" and "not so rigid," allowing some flexibility about the next step, he added. "There are lots of ways this could play out."

One possible scenario is that the Security Council agrees on a specific number of days for full compliance, and if Hussein fails to meet that deadline, a second resolution would be passed endorsing military intervention, U.S. officials say.

But there are many other scenarios, and a second resolution is not guaranteed since ongoing differences could prevent it from passing.

But in each scenario, Washington intends to resist the "seductive quality" of prolonged inspections, the State Department official said. "What will five more weeks or five more months tell us that we don't already know?"

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