Talk of any imminent U.S. military campaign against Iraq is receding in the wake of last weekend's summit between U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, where the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- not problems with Baghdad -- dominated the agenda. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel speaks with analysts about where the Iraq crisis stands now and where it may be headed in the coming months.
Prague, 8 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Both U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair repeatedly emphasized this weekend that they see Baghdad's weapons programs as a matter of urgent concern.
But the American leader and his closest European ally also said they are undertaking no planning at the moment for a military campaign against Iraq to remove the danger.
The statements, made at the Bush-Blair weekend summit at the U.S. president's ranch in Texas, could indicate that Washington has opted -- at least for now -- to pursue a diplomatic offensive rather than a military one against Baghdad. The question of which strategy Washington will pursue has created widespread press speculation that U.S. military action against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime could be imminent in the months ahead.
Speaking to the press over the weekend, Bush said that both he and Blair "recognize the danger of a man (Saddam) who's willing to kill his own people harboring and developing weapons of mass destruction." Bush also said, "the world would be better off without (Saddam)" and that "I have made up my mind that Saddam needs to go."
But Blair, speaking in tandem with Bush, said he views toppling Saddam by force as something that would happen only "if necessary." He told reporters, "If necessary, the action should be military and again, if necessary and justified, it should involve regime change."
Analysts say the statements by the two leaders suggest the Iraq debate will likely now shift away from discussions of imminent military strikes and focus instead on efforts at the UN to compel Iraq to readmit weapons inspectors.
Michael Binyon, diplomatic editor of "The Times" of London, says the months ahead are likely to see intense efforts at the UN to get Saddam to readmit arms monitors, who have been banned from the country for more than three years.
"It is obvious, from whichever way you look at it, that the Americans are not ready for any immediate [military] action, and they have been signaling that pretty loudly for some time now. And that does give time for the [UN] talk about inspectors to go on."
But Binyon says the U.S. and Britain will put strict terms on the UN talks. One will be to insist on unfettered access for inspectors as a minimum acceptable condition to ease fears that Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD) might pass into the hands of terrorist groups. U.S. officials also have previously said they would not permit any Iraqi efforts to extend the talks indefinitely.
"I think Saddam has an interest in playing [with the UN talks to gain] as much time as he can get. But [the outcome of the talks] depends on whether or not he is prepared to actually allow free access [for] any UN inspections team or whether he wants to handpick the ones who go there and allow them only limited access. If it's the second, then it clearly would not be acceptable to the West."
Neil Partrick, a Middle East specialist at the Economist Intelligence Unit in London, says a diplomatic offensive serves several aims. If successful, it could lead to renewed arms monitoring. But if Baghdad refuses full cooperation, that failure would help build international support for military action as necessary for removing any Iraqi weapons threat.
"I think the message came through from the British prime minister that if weapons inspectors prove to be frustrated in terms of getting access to Iraq -- and beyond that, if they are not able to do their work -- then I think there was a fairly clear message there that the U.K. would not only support some form of military action, but would be a part of it."
Partrick continues: "Clearly, Britain wants to assert the importance of weapons inspections in terms of UN resolutions, to stress therefore issues of international legitimacy and to build as wide a body of support as may be possible, at least to minimize opposition to any military action on the basis that UN resolutions would have been frustrated if weapons inspections are not conducted."
Analysts say the apparent decision by Bush and Blair to postpone for now any immediate prospects of military action is motivated by several concerns.
One is the current intensity of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians and widespread European feelings that Washington must make defusing that crisis its most urgent regional priority.
Similarly, the intensity of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis is making it difficult to build strong public support among Arab states for military action targeting Iraq. Successfully overthrowing Saddam by force would require assurances from key regional leaders that they would not oppose the effort. However, an Arab League summit late last month concluded with resolutions rejecting any attack on Iraq, while stressing the need for Baghdad to respect all UN resolutions.
Analyst Partrick says that, given such challenges, it may be inevitable that Bush and Blair postpone any military efforts to solve the Iraq crisis, even as they stress they prefer a world without Saddam.
"I think it was always inevitable that the approach to this whole question was going to be one of seeking UN weapons inspections. This would inevitably mean there would be some focus on the UN. I think also that although the U.S. and the U.K. will believe that eventually military action will be necessary, there has been an understanding for some time that the political pieces have to be in place."
He continues: "Part of that requires action regarding Israel and the Palestinians. Beyond that, it requires some degree of at least non-opposition from key Arab actors and, of course, persuasion in terms of the use of some of their facilities for military action. Not to mention a possible three to four months of buildup to have sufficient military assets in place."
In one further sign that neither Washington nor London may be ready at the moment to opt for a military rather than diplomatic strategy on Iraq, both in recent days postponed presentations of evidence regarding Baghdad's WMD programs. The presentation of evidence had been awaited by many observers as the start of a new campaign to build public support for military action.
The Bush administration postponed plans to provide the UN Security Council's members last week with an intelligence briefing alleging Iraq is developing banned missile technology.
Similarly, Blair delayed plans to publish an intelligence dossier on Iraq's secret arms programs prior to his weekend summit with Bush. Press speculation on the reasons ranged from reports that some government members felt the evidence was not yet convincing enough, to reports of fears the publication would fuel already deep splits over Blair's posture toward Iraq in the ranks of his own Labour Party.
"The Times" diplomatic correspondent Binyon says that Blair has yet to convince many Labour leaders of the necessity for military action against Iraq -- forcing him to be a cautious partner to Bush, who has adopted a more bellicose stance.
"There is considerable unease in Britain and there was a motion signed in parliament by more than 140 MPs, including 122 Labour MPs, deploring any immediate action against Iraq or at least warning against it.... I think the publication of this document would very much have been seen as a green light for any military action because the same kind of thing was used just before the strikes on Kosovo, when they published the evidence of atrocities committed by Serbs against Kosovar civilians."
In the wake of the Bush-Blair summit, top U.S. officials immediately moved to reinforce its message that no strikes on Iraq are imminent.
White House National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice told CNN yesterday that Bush "has not decided to use military force" and added that "there may be other things that can be done."
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell told the U.S. television network NBC yesterday that Washington is working within the United Nations to "get in place [smarter] sanctions...[and to] demand that the inspectors be allowed back in."