Washington, 13 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The United States has warned Iraq to reverse course or brace for substantial military strikes over its defiance of U.N. arms inspections. Iraq countered by saying the U.S. was already waging war against it through crippling economic sanctions.
Defense Secretary William Cohen said during a visit Thursday to the U.S. navy base at Norfolk, Virginia, that any military action would be "significant" and aimed at degrading Iraq's weapons making capabilities.
Cohen said no decision has been made nor a time-frame decided as to when the strikes might be launched. However, he said the U.S. already has a major force in the Gulf region in addition to more ships, planes and troops being sent into the area.
The secretary said: "We are not seeking to go to war. We are trying to avoid it." He added that the choice of war or peace now rests with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
President Bill Clinton on Wednesday ordered the strengthening of American forces in the Gulf, including dispatching an additional 129 aircraft and 3,000 soldiers. Clinton said in a speech commemorating veterans that Washington would have no choice but to act without further warning unless Iraq lets the inspectors do their jobs.
There are currently 23 U.S. combat ships in the Gulf, including an aircraft carrier and its 70 combat and support planes. Eight of the 23 ships are armed with sea-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles. Another carrier is also on the way.
In Baghdad, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tareq Aziz brushed aside the U.S. military threat by saying that America's refusal to have the U.N. lift its economic sanctions was already tantamount to war. Those sanctions were imposed by the U.N. Security Council after Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990. The U.S. has veto power at the Security Council, where every decision must be unanimous.
Aziz said at a news conference in Baghdad that Iraq had done all it could to comply with U.N. resolutions demanding the dismantling of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.
He said: "We don't see any light at the end of the tunnel. There is a tunnel after the tunnel."
Aziz also said that Iraq was willing to allow U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to intervene in the crisis "in principle" but would not "court" him to do so.
But U.S. officials said there was nothing to negotiate.
At the State Department, spokesman James Rubin rejected Aziz's remarks. Rubin said: "Clearly, Iraq is desperately trying to shift the blame for this crisis away from its shoulders, away from its doorstep, to the United States. And I think what we've seen in the last couple of days is that effort is failing completely and totally."
Rubin noted that Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Oman all agreed in a statement that responsibility for the crisis rests with Iraq.
The State Department spokesman said if Iraq wants to see the sanctions lifted it should acknowledge that it has failed to cooperate.
He said: "Iraq must come clean about its weapons of mass destruction. That's what this crisis is about; it's about whether Iraq will stop the lying, stop the obscuring of the facts and start the cooperation. And no amount of polemic or attempt to shift blame is going to change the fact that the whole world is placing responsibility for this crisis squarely on Iraq's doorstep."
At the White House, spokesman Joseph Lockhart said the international community is united against its opposition to Iraqi defiance.
Lockhart said: "I think we have talked to allies around the world. The U.N. has spoken clearly about the need for Saddam Hussein to change course. And we, as we have in the past, have, in the application of our diplomacy, felt that the threat of force is both appropriate and may be required."
Also on Thursday, U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, a senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said at a news conference that the time has come to remove Saddam Hussein from power.
Lugar said: "Currently Iraq has effectively ended the inspection regime. This means that Iraq has the ability to build weapons of mass destruction. I presume the logic is that if we cannot inspect a facility we will attempt to bomb and destroy it."
Another influential Republican senator, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, urged Clinton to recall Congress into special session to vote on the use of force against Iraq. Congress is in recess until January.
Specter said bombing Iraq would amount to an act of war and such an action "requires prior congressional authority" under the U.S. Constitution.