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U.S.: Media Foresee War With Iraq Despite Mixed Official Message

  • Jeffrey Donovan

Tense anticipation is growing around the world that the United States may soon take its war on terrorism to Iraq. U.S. news media are predicting Baghdad will be targeted next -- despite conflicting signals from the U.S. administration.

Washington, 13 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Talk of war is heating up in Washington amid press reports that U.S. Vice President Richard Cheney will use an upcoming trip to the Middle East to seek broad backing for a U.S.-led war to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

The daily "USA Today," citing anonymous White House sources, reported yesterday that Cheney will make a concerted bid for diplomatic support for a war on Iraq during a trip in March to several Middle East nations including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, and Turkey -- all countries that border Iraq.

The report said no attack is likely before May, when the United Nations Security Council is due to vote on a new sanctions regime against Iraq. The report said conflict could also be sparked should Saddam refuse to allow UN weapons inspectors back into the country for the first time since being barred in 1998.

Cheney is set to leave in mid-March and is also due to visit Egypt, Israel, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates.

Speculation that Washington will use military means to seek to oust Saddam has been rising since President George W. Bush's State of the Union speech on 29 January. In it, Bush called Iraq, Iran, and North Korea an "axis of evil" that must be confronted in some way before they use weapons of mass destruction.

While the U.S. sought to play down speculation yesterday that war is imminent with Iraq -- which Washington forced out of Kuwait after Baghdad invaded the Persian Gulf state in 1991 -- Saddam accused America of being drunk on power and seeking to destroy itself and the world in a flurry of war.

After meeting yesterday in Baghdad with Austrian far-right leader Joerg Haider, Saddam urged Europe to try to make Washington see the light of reason, adding: "When the Americans reach the position of power, they suffer from power dizziness and instead of ruling on the basis of wisdom, they use force."

Bush's rhetoric, to be sure, has sown concern among European leaders who believe Washington may seek to expand the war on terrorism -- even despite opposition from America's allies.

In Berlin yesterday, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer criticized Bush's "axis of evil" label. Fischer said the international coalition against terrorism should not be led by one country. And recently, the European Union's international relations commissioner, Chris Patten, said Bush's statement was "deeply unhelpful."

The White House is also starting to face criticism at home -- including from within Bush's own Republican Party -- over plans to take the war to Iraq.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, responding to questions about a possible war in Iraq, told reporters yesterday there are no imminent plans to strike Iraq.

But the White House's message appears increasingly mixed. Just after Fleischer spoke, Secretary of State Colin Powell told a Senate committee hearing that while the U.S. has no plans to invade Iran or North Korea, it is exploring all options in pursuing its goal of "regime change" in Iraq.

Powell said all three countries pose a danger in terms of their development and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and described the U.S. concerns regarding Iran.

"We encourage moderate forces in Iran and we have talked quite candidly with a number of our friends, particularly the Russians, with respect to Iranian ambitions on nuclear weapons development," Powell said. "But we are not at [the] point where we're drawing up contingency plans to invade Iran."

But Iraq, Powell said, is in a "different category" than either Iran or North Korea: "With respect to Iraq, it's long been [thought] -- for several years now -- that 'regime change' would be in the best interests of the region, the best interests of the Iraqi people. And we're looking at a variety of options that would bring that about. So Iraq is in a slightly different category than Iran and North Korea. But all bear similar characteristics with respect to the nature of their regimes and to some of the activities they are conducting with respect to weapons of destruction and the means to deliver weapons of mass destruction."

During that same hearing, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Robert Byrd, a Democrat, told Powell that Bush's words had alarmed many people around the world. He compared Bush to a cowboy who "shoots from the hip" whenever he wants.

Byrd, a respected power-broker and senator for the last 42 years, told Powell the White House has an obligation before striking Iraq to seek approval in Congress in the form of a declaration of war.