The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush is dismissing a surprise offer by Baghdad to readmit United Nations weapons inspectors. But Iraq's move appears to have deflated the support Bush won at the United Nations last week for tough action against Baghdad.
Washington, 18 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush's options for dealing with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein appear to have been complicated by a surprise offer by Baghdad to readmit United Nations weapons inspectors.
In a speech to the UN last week, Bush garnered broad international support for new UN-backed measures -- possibly executed under the threat of U.S.-led military action -- to ensure that Iraq does not harbor any weapons of mass destruction.
But an Iraqi letter late Monday to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan offering the unconditional return of arms inspectors has dealt at least a temporary blow to the international consensus and sharpened the divide between Washington and Moscow, a key permanent member of the UN Security Council.
Ted Galen Carpenter, from Washington's Cato Institute think tank, said: "[The letter] has thrown a very large monkey wrench into the administration's war machine. Clearly, Saddam is stalling, but it is a very adept stalling tactic."
For his part, Bush -- who is due today to discuss his Iraq strategy with members of the U.S. Congress -- continued to lash out at Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and indicated the issue will not be solved by the mere return of inspectors. Speaking yesterday in Tennessee, Bush said Hussein has "delayed, denied, [and] deceived the world," and said the Security Council "must not be fooled.... For the sake of liberty and justice for all, the United Nations Security Council must act," Bush said.
But at a news conference at the UN yesterday, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Russian Foreign Minister Ivan Ivanov clashed over whether the Security Council should pass a resolution to give the inspectors new powers before they return to Iraq and stated the consequences should Baghdad not comply. Washington clearly wants such consequences to entail military action.
But Ivanov said Russia believes no new resolution is needed for the inspectors to return and that they should simply follow the same operating procedures as they did in the 1990s. Inspectors left Iraq in 1998 after what they called Iraqi noncompliance.
France, which is also a key permanent Security Council member and which last week called for new resolutions on Iraq, agreed with Russia. Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said, "I think that, already, all the elements that are needed to act are there."
But Powell said the U.S., which seeks "regime change" in Baghdad, does not trust Iraq based on its past of playing cat-and-mouse games with inspectors and failing to respect UN obligations. "We cannot just take a 1 1/4-page letter signed by the [Iraqi] foreign minister as the end of this matter. We have seen this game before," Powell said.
Chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix met Tuesday with an Iraqi delegation to discuss arranging the inspections. Further talks were scheduled. And most of the 15 Security Council members, who met informally on Tuesday, asked Blix to speak to them as soon as possible, despite U.S. requests for a delay.
However, Annan appeared to leave the door open to Security Council action by agreeing with Powell that inspectors need a new basis for action in order not to repeat past errors. "This is not going to be business as usual or a repeat of what happened in the past," Annan said.
Powell responded to the secretary-general by saying, "The only way to make sure that it is not business as usual, and to make sure that it is not a repeat of the past -- it seems to me, anyway -- is to put it in the form of a new UN resolution."
Meanwhile, Iraq hailed its offer on inspections, saying it had robbed Washington of any legitimate reason to wage war.
Analysts agreed the letter may complicate matters for Bush. The Cato Institute's Carpenter made this observation. "Once the issue of the development of weapons of mass destruction has been put on the back burner, and if the UN inspections resume, it certainly should be on the back burner, then the administration is not left with a very strong case for military action against Iraq," Carpenter said.
Raymond Tanter, a professor at the University of Michigan and member of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan's National Security Council, acknowledged that the White House "will be in an bind" if it fails to get a new resolution from the Security Council.
But Tanter believes Bush is not in a bind yet. He thinks that as long as Washington continues to pressure Baghdad with military action, Russia and France will eventually soften their stance on new resolutions in order to stay engaged in a post-Hussein Iraq. "I don't think Russia is talking about the merits of the case. If you sell out the Georgians and the Chechens, I think you buy the Russians. And if you do that, then you have the French and the Chinese. The issue is: What is the administration willing to pay to get Russian support?" Tanter said.
Meanwhile, the Bush administration is banking on Hussein himself, i.e., that Hussein's past proves he cannot be trusted. Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said on Tuesday that, "History has shown that Saddam Hussein's word cannot be taken at face value."
Bill Frenzel, who served in the U.S. House of Representatives for 20 years (Republican, Minnesota), is a political analyst with the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. Like Tanter, Frenzel says Hussein himself is likely to undo any support he has garnered with the letter because the Iraqi leader will end up repeating his past actions, namely, by failing in some way to comply with the inspections.
Frenzel said he believes that in the end, Bush's position will be welcomed in the same way it was after his speech to the UN last week. He said if Hussein continues to hamper thorough inspections, the Iraqi leader is not going to "alter whatever the feeling was when Bush came out of New York."
For now, Bush is set to keep up the pressure that produced the Iraqi offer in the first place.
The Pentagon is moving forward with contingency plans for war in Iraq. U.S. officials confirmed yesterday they are in talks with London on the possibility of basing up to six radar-avoiding B-2 "stealth" bombers on the British Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia.
Moving the bombers -- usually based in the midwestern U.S. -- to the island would cut their flight time to Iraq in half.
The Pentagon is also proceeding with plans to move most Central Command staff to the Persian Gulf state of Qatar for an exercise in November. It is also reportedly seeking to ship military vehicles and hundreds of containers full of ammunition from Europe to the Persian Gulf.
(RFE/RL's Andrew F. Tully contributed to this report.)