Washington, 16 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President Bill Clinton says Iraq has reversed course on its refusal to allow U.N. weapons inspections because it was facing an imminent military attack. Clinton warned that the U.S. won't hesitate to strike if Baghdad again walks away from its commitments.
In a speech and subsequent remarks from the White House press room, Clinton said Sunday that the U.S. and Britain - with the support of their friends and allies around the world - had been "poised" to act militarily if Iraq had not backed down.
Clinton said: "Our willingness to strike, together with the overwhelming weight of world opinion, produced the outcome we preferred - (Iraqi President) Saddam Hussein reversing course, letting the inspectors go back to work without restrictions or conditions."
U.S. officials said privately that a decision to call off military strikes against Iraq was made after Baghdad sent a letter to the United Nations promising its cooperation. They say the attack was aborted with B-52 warplanes already in the air, armed with cruise missiles.
The attack was said to involve air and sea-launched cruise missiles, as well as fighter jets from the naval carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, and from other locations.
Clinton said the return of U.N. inspectors to Iraq is the best possible outcome of the crisis because they remain the most effective tool to uncover, destroy and prevent Iraq from rebuilding its weapons of mass destruction and the missiles to deliver them.
The president said: "Now let me be clear. Iraq has backed down, but that is not enough. Now Iraq must live up to its obligations."
Clinton said Iraq must still resolve all outstanding issues raised by the weapons inspectors and turn over all relevant documents related to its armament programs.
He said: "Iraq must accept once and for all that the only path forward is complete compliance with its obligations to the world. Until we see complete compliance, we will remain vigilant, we will keep up the pressure, we will be ready to act."
The president said that over the long term, the best way to address future Iraqi threats "is through a government in Baghdad -- a new government that is committed to represent and respect its people, not repress them. That is committed to peace in the region."
Secretary of Defense William Cohen explained later that Clinton's comment was not a call for the Iraqi people to rise up and overthrow the current regime.
Cohen said: "What he was saying is that we are prepared and will work with opposition forces or groups to try to bring about in some future time a more democratic type of regime that is more responsive to its people, and not to engage in the harsh and brutal repression of them."
In his speech, Clinton said that during the past year the U.S. has deepened its "engagement with the forces of change in Iraq, reconciling the two largest Kurdish opposition groups, (and) beginning broadcasts of a Radio Free Iraq throughout the country. "
Radio Free Iraq is a U.S. taxpayers-funded independent broadcast operation established by the Congress to provide uncensored news and information to the Iraqi people.
In a broadcast interview (on the U.S. TV network CNN), Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz said U.N. arms inspectors can return to Iraq anytime they wish. Aziz said Baghdad will provide the inspectors with all the cooperation required by U.N. resolutions.
However, he disputed Clinton's view that Iraq had backed down because of the threat of U.S. military force. Aziz said Iraq had relented because of appeals by its friends.
U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan welcomed Clinton's "statesmanlike response." A spokeswoman for British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Britain supports Clinton's position "absolutely."