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U.S./Iraq: Are Influential Senator's Comments About War With Iraq Tacit Approval?

A leading U.S. legislator says he believes there will probably be a war between the United States and Iraq. Does this mean he is giving his or even Congress' endorsement in advance of any such conflict?

Washington, 7 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- An influential member of the U.S. Congress says he believes war between the U.S. and Iraq over Baghdad's attempts to acquire weapons of mass destruction appears likely.

Senator Joseph Biden is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He said during a television interview on 4 August that the United States will "probably" go to war with Iraq.

Biden said it is clear that Iraq possesses biological and chemical weapons but that it is unknown if it has the means the use them effectively. Biden said the U.S. has "no choice" but to eliminate this threat. He called Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein an "extreme danger to the world."

But among the unresolved issues, Biden said, are whether the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush will act alone or with allies, how long such a war might last, and what it will cost in both money and human life. He cited estimates that 75,000 U.S. soldiers might be needed in Iraq for anywhere from 18 months to 20 years.

Biden's Senate committee recently held two days of hearings on the Iraq situation. In opening the sessions, which are to resume in the autumn, Biden said that if the U.S. does go to war with Iraq, it should act with what he called the "informed consent of the American people."

Experts on Middle Eastern and military affairs gave the committee varying views on the threat that Saddam poses to his neighbors and to the United States. They also explored how such a war might be fought and its consequences -- for Iraqi civilians, as well as for U.S. forces and any allies who may fight on the American side.

Several witnesses also focused on what would happen to Iraq after such a war, and whether the United States is prepared to ensure that Saddam would be succeeded by a leadership that would not threaten its neighbors and which would be responsive to the needs of the Iraqi people.

Biden is a Democrat. So the question arises whether Biden, in suggesting the probability of a U.S.-led war with Iraq, was in any way endorsing such action -- either on his own behalf, his party's, or Congress'.

Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, says Biden is a veteran politician who would not make such a prediction unless he knew it had a solid foundation. Sabato told RFE/RL that Biden is aware of the support in Congress -- particularly in the Senate -- for U.S. military action against Iraq.

"He's done his vote-counting and knows that a solid majority in the Senate -- almost all Republicans, plus a sizable bloc of Democrats -- favor this intervention, so there's no way to stop it," Sabato said.

Sabato was asked why Biden would bother to hold hearings to debate a U.S. war with Iraq if he believes such a conflict is likely. "Those hearings are more for people who maybe want to see the effort succeed but have serious questions about the way we're approaching it -- to have an opportunity to vent those questions before we do anything, so that the policy-makers will take some of these considerations into account," Sabato said.

Leon Fuerth, a professor of international affairs at George Washington University in Washington, disagrees. He told RFE/RL that Biden's statements should not be interpreted to mean that he expects a war.

"It's more important at this stage to listen to Biden present the results of his two days of hearings, which explored the implications of war, than it is to mark Biden down as someone who is predicting that this [war] is inevitable," Fuerth said.

Fuerth served as national security adviser to Al Gore, the vice president under U.S. President Bill Clinton. Gore ran against Bush in the 2000 U.S. presidential campaign.

According to Fuerth, the fact that Biden held the hearings on Iraq last week demonstrates that his comments cannot be interpreted as giving congressional approval to a war against Iraq before he receives answers to the questions raised at the hearings.

"I think it would be a mistake for senior members of Congress to take the posture that war is inevitable and then to say, 'But we need to have a debate about it,'" Fuerth said. "If you regard the thing as already predetermined, then what's the point?"

Still, Fuerth said, the Bush administration needs no formal approval, by Congress or any other body, to resume hostilities against Iraq because Iraq has violated the terms of the 1991 Gulf War cease-fire. The truce states that Iraq must submit to rigorous inspections by UN officials to ensure that its nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons programs have ended. Iraq has refused to readmit UN inspectors after they left in 1998 ahead of allied bombing strikes of suspected weapons sites.

Fuerth also pointed out that U.S. policy since the days of the Gulf War has been that Saddam must be removed as president of Iraq.

"I've been writing that it's not a question of whether, but [of] when and how. And what Biden has been exploring [in the Foreign Relations Committee hearings] are the conditions for getting this job done on terms that would be controllable and acceptable to the United States," Fuerth said.

On 6 August, the Bush administration restated this policy. State Department spokesman Philip Reeker told reporters that Saddam must be removed because he continues to threaten his neighbors, as well as the United States; because he is developing weapons of mass destruction; and because he has consistently ignored UN Security Council resolutions.

Meanwhile, in a letter sent to Bush on 6 August, 75 members of the U.S. House of Representatives urged the president to seek congressional approval before taking any military action against Iraq.