Washington, 6 February 1998(RFE/RL) -- The United States has taken the unusual step of formally denying reports that it plans to use nuclear weapons against Iraq.
The denial came from the U.S. State Department Thursday, as President Boris Yeltsin in Moscow for the second day in a row warned the U.S. against attacking Baghdad, saying it could lead to a wider war and that Russia strongly opposes military action against Iraq.
Asked about Yeltsin's comments, State Department spokesman James Rubin said inaccurate press reports about U.S. intentions in Iraq are circulating in Russia and may be the reason for what he described as "unjustified concern about the implications of the use of force in the Middle East."
Rubin said one highly inaccurate report making the rounds in the Duma says the U.S. plans to use nuclear weapons to destroy chemical and biological storage facilities in Iraq.
"Those reports have no basis in fact," he said, adding unequivocally: "the United States has no plans or intentions of using nuclear weapons."
A similar statement was issued by the U.S. Embassy in Moscow earlier this week.
At the White House Thursday, President Bill Clinton told reporters he doubts a wider war would break out if the U.S. does take action against Iraq over its refusal to open suspect sites to United Nations weapons inspectors. And Clinton said he had a good telephone conversation with Yeltsin earlier this week. He did not elaborate.
The State Department's Rubin reiterated that the U.S. and Russia share a common goal of getting Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to comply fully with the weapons inspections mandated by the United Nations.
He said the U.S. has no reason to doubt that Russia's goal in Iraq is the same as America's. The difference is that Russia is more optimistic diplomacy can achieve the task and the U.S. believes the crisis has dragged on for too long and the threat of force and if necessary the use of force is appropriate, Rubin said.
He said Secretary of State Madeleine Albright spoke again by telephone Thursday with Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov to clarify the U.S. view of what full compliance is and the standard Iraq has to meet to satisfy U.N. Security Council requirements.
They met in Madrid a week ago to discuss the crisis and have been in touch several times since.
But Rubin emphasized Albright does not ask Primakov to pass on messages to Iraq. "We do not relay messages to Baghdad through the Russians," Rubin said.
He also made clear that any military strike against Iraq would not be aimed specifically at toppling Saddam Hussein.
Rubin pointed out that the 1991 Gulf War demonstrated it would take hundreds of thousands of ground troops to remove Iraq's leadership by force.
He said the U.S. certainly looks forward to the day when Iraq has new leadership that would allow it to join the family of nations but is not making that a current policy goal.
Rubin reiterated that U.S. policy is designed to block Iraq from developing or using weapons of mass destruction and limit its ability to threaten other countries in the region.
His statement seemed to preclude plans to use ground troops in the event of a U.S. attack on Iraq. Most analysts are predicting that if the U.S. does launch a strike against Iraq, it will be another high-technology attack with even more sophisticated and precision-target weaponry than used in the Gulf War.
Speculation about a U.S. military action against Iraq sparking a wider war surfaced in the press in connection with concerns that Iraq might target biological or chemical weapons against Israel.
Rubin stated unequivocally that the U.S. has, in his words "an ironclad commitment to Israel's security, and that an attack by Iraq on any of Iraq's neighbors, including Israel, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia or others, would be met with a swift and forceful response."