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SHOWDOWN WITH IRAQ

U.S. Scrambles to Get Commitments in Iraq War

March 18, 2003|Paul Richter | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — In a flurry of last-minute contacts with dozens of countries, U.S. officials Monday scrambled to work out military and diplomatic issues that could still complicate the approaching war with Iraq.

Officials sought to pin down answers on U.S. requests for military access, overflight rights and troops, and conferred with governments in the Persian Gulf region on how they will respond if Saddam Hussein attacks their territory, officials said.

"We've been negotiating for months, and right up to this minute we still have lots to talk about," one U.S. official said.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell talked to about two dozen foreign leaders in the course of the day, including German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and Mexican Foreign Secretary Luis Ernesto Derbez. Most of Powell's conversations "were simply to tell people where we stand" on the U.S. diplomatic efforts in the United Nations, said a senior official.

On one of the most urgent issues, U.S. diplomats and military officials pressed ahead with talks aimed at winning Turkey's military assistance and obtaining commitments from Turks and Kurds that they would not fight each other. U.S. officials want to keep the Kurds from trying to set up a breakaway government in northern Iraq, and to prevent the Turks from sending troops deep into Kurdish-held territory, a move the Kurds have warned they would fight.

U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad is at work in the region, but neither the Turks nor the Kurds have made commitments on how they will act, officials said.

Top Turkish officials signaled Monday that they would move quickly to deal with the U.S. requests for overflight rights and access to Turkish territory. Yet it remained unclear how much assistance they are willing to provide, after having rebuffed a request for U.S. aid in the national legislature on March 1.

There also have been no commitments from neighboring Iran, which could be drawn deeply into a war with Iraq.

During the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, the U.S. engaged in secret discussions with Iran to secure Tehran's agreement to permit some U.S. overflights and to allow U.S. military search and rescue efforts in its territory.

This time, the Iranians have made no public commitments to help and are backing an opposition force of Iraqi Shiites in northern Iraq, a development that has drawn expressions of concern from the United States.

U.S. officials say only that they have "had conversations with the Iranians from time to time," and have made clear that the United States opposes any unilateral move by Iran into Iraq, an official said.

James Lindsay, a former National Security Council official now at the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan Washington think tank, said Iran wants Saddam Hussein gone and is not likely to interfere during a war. But Iran also wants to influence events in Iraq, and it may try to do so once the United States begins putting together a new government, he said.

"The question is, how long is this mutuality of interests going to last?" he said.

Russia, which also provided military aid and access during the war in Afghanistan, is opposed to military action against Iraq. But the Bush administration has been sparing in its criticism of the Russians -- a sign that it hopes for Russian assistance once the war is won.

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