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SHOWDOWN WITH IRAQ | NEWS ANALYSIS

Latest Moves by President Pave the Way for a War

March 15, 2003|Robin Wright | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — President Bush's two bold steps Friday -- announcing a last-ditch summit with Britain and Spain and pledging to soon release the "road map" for a final Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement -- in effect signal the breakdown of diplomacy on Iraq, U.S. officials and analysts say.

The summit, in the remote Azores islands, is expected to pave the way for war, because the three leaders have now concluded that they almost certainly will not be able to win sufficient backing for a U.N. resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq, according to U.N. and U.S. officials.

All three countries will still lobby hard behind the scenes over the next 48 hours for votes at the Security Council, U.N. diplomats say. And inducements are clearly still being offered to key council members. But the administration is increasingly likely to pull the resolution altogether rather than go for a vote to make a point, discouraged U.S. officials said Friday.

The United States has gradually lost the psychological edge in recent days, U.N. envoys say, because of three developments. France's declared intention to veto sapped the interest of small countries to stand with Washington. The Turkish parliament refused to approve access to U.S. troops for a northern front.

And Mexico and Chile have so far balked at providing the votes that might have cemented the nine necessary to pass the resolution, which could have provided grounds to squeeze antiwar veto holders Russia, China and even France.

Barring a last-minute turnaround at the Security Council, the Azores summit is expected to be followed quickly by a U.S. ultimatum to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to go into exile -- or face the consequences.

"We are in the endgame for U.N. diplomacy," national security advisor Condoleezza Rice said Friday in an interview with Al Jazeera, the Arab world's most popular television network. "A moment of truth is coming soon, and that's what the leaders are going to meet to discuss in the Azores."

Added an envoy from a country involved in the summit: "This is the beginning of the preparations for war."

One sign of the now-imminent final decision came when the Pentagon on Friday began moving about 10 Navy ships out of the Mediterranean into the Red Sea, where they can launch missiles at Iraq without sending planes over Turkey.

But the bigger clue to the status of U.S. diplomatic efforts, six months after Bush's speech appealing for U.N. action to disarm Iraq, was his Rose Garden pledge Friday to jump-start peace efforts on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The administration insisted that its abrupt action was not connected to Iraq but was instead produced by the confluence of three factors: Israel has formed a new government after January elections. The Palestinian Authority is soon to put in place a new prime minister, weakening the autocratic control of Yasser Arafat. And the so-called quartet -- the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia -- has in place a road map for peace.

"This is not new. This has been bubbling for weeks," a senior State Department official said. "These three elements have come together, and now we can talk about them more publicly."

Yet both Republicans and Democrats, Israelis and Arabs greeted the move with cynicism. It is widely seen as a kind of diplomatic quid pro quo that will make it easier for Britain and Spain to stay on board for war by addressing a key concern of both governments and their publics.

The timing of Bush's announcement "gives the impression that it is far more related to the upcoming war with Iraq and coalition-building than with a realistic settlement of the Arab-Israeli dispute," said Geoffrey Kemp, a Nixon Center fellow and Reagan administration analyst on the Middle East.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar have badly needed a U.S. commitment to act on the other, older Middle East conflict before they take the last step on Iraq. But so do Arab allies and others among the two dozen nations that administration sources claim are willing to play some role in supporting a U.S.-led war to oust Hussein.

"Do they expect us to believe this is new thinking on the peace process? It's not credible. Bush did this to help the British and to indirectly recognize that world opinion believes that progress on [the] peace process is essential to get through the Iraq transition in the least violent and tumultuous way possible," said Ellen Laipson, former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council and now president of the Henry L. Stimson Center.

The administration promised Friday to remain engaged, not simply make a pledge. U.S. officials even offered to deal with the new Palestinian prime minister, after long shunning Arafat.

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