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U.S. Toils On but Appears Increasingly Alone

White House holds course on Iraq despite a weekend of major diplomatic setbacks.

March 03, 2003|Robin Wright | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — After a weekend of stunning setbacks, the United States appears increasingly isolated in its efforts to rally international diplomatic and military support for a war in Iraq, although the Bush administration defiantly pledged Sunday to persevere.

"It's not over till it's over," a senior State Department official said of the intense diplomacy underway to deal with multiple challenges.

The big question now is: Did the weekend's triple whammy -- Turkey's failure to approve a U.S. military presence, increased European opposition to a U.N. resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq, and Arab agreement against the use of force -- begin to unravel the administration's campaign to win world support for confronting Saddam Hussein? Or was it simply a nadir from which Washington will bounce back and end up with a U.N. resolution, and maybe even other regional military support?

The setbacks forced a scramble to regroup quickly, since the administration's greatest challenge may actually be a loss of the momentum it has generated after almost six months of unyielding diplomatic pressure.

A U.N. session to debate Iraqi disarmament, scheduled for later this week, adds to the pressure. Washington had expected the debate to mark the countdown to a new U.N. resolution authorizing the use of force and a military showdown. Instead, pivotal parties are rebuffing the White House.

In Turkey, the biggest blow was parliament's refusal Saturday to approve the use of Turkish bases for 62,000 U.S. troops to launch a northern front against Iraq. That forced the Pentagon to begin shifting to fallback plans.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell discussed the options with Turkish Prime Minister Abdullah Gul on Sunday, U.S. officials said. But the ruling party said it had no plans to seek another vote in the "foreseeable future."

Experts warned against another vote.

"The Turkish public has welcomed the defeat, and members of parliament look like heroes, so they're unlikely to change their votes any time soon. And the United States can't wait indefinitely for a different answer, so its only choice is to go to Plan B," said Henri Barkey, a former State Department official.

The U.S. military's fallback plans are expected to include airlifting a smaller number of troops into the autonomous northern Iraqi area controlled by ethnic Kurds. The scaled-back mission would probably involve securing oil fields, preventing a preemptive attack by Baghdad, holding back the Kurds and blocking attempts by regional parties to get involved, U.S. officials say.

Washington had intended to deploy the Army's 4th Infantry Division in Turkey, but a fallback plan would probably involve a lighter force from the 101st Airborne Division, a senior Pentagon official said Sunday.

The redeployment of troops, which could take three weeks, could also delay military action. Depending on the progress of diplomacy at the U.N., a U.S.-led invasion had been widely expected in the second half of March. That could slip to early April, some experts predicted.

The brunt of any ground assault might now have to come from Kuwait, which could require a longer campaign and greater risks, congressional officials and military experts said.

"You cannot do Iraq simply from the south. If you do it from the south and things go well, the whole war could be over in a month or less. If you don't have the north, it might take two months or more. That's a lot of American people in harm's way," Sen. John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), a Senate Intelligence Committee member, said Sunday on CNN's "Late Edition."

The cost of losing Turkey's involvement is also psychological.

"The administration is using the same carrot-and-stick tactic to bring on board the [U.N.] Security Council swing states. With Turkey, it used the biggest carrot, and at the last minute, Turkey didn't come around. This will send a strong signal to public opinion in these other countries who will take heart from the Turkish vote," said Kenneth Pollack, director of research at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy and a National Security Council staff member in the Clinton and current Bush administrations.

Both France and Russia campaigned hard over the weekend against the pending U.N. resolution. Russian President Vladimir V. Putin said Sunday that the Iraq crisis "can and should" be resolved peacefully.

Moscow engaged in its own frenzied telephone diplomacy, as Foreign Minister Igor S. Ivanov held talks with seven of the 10 elected Security Council members: Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Guinea, Mexico, Pakistan and Syria.

Powell also spoke to Ivanov on Sunday, as U.S. officials indicated that Washington believes it has eight of the nine council votes needed for passage of a new resolution. The issue is whether France and Russia, both permanent council members, will veto.

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